The Free Internet Project

election misinformation

Public Service Announcements: Tips to Avoid Election Misinformation and Fake Election Results

The Free Internet Project makes the following public service announcements to provide the public with information and tips to avoid election misinformation, including the potential for fake election results and fake news of voting irregularities to delegitimize the election. We plan on sharing these public service announcements on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media. We invite you to share them as well.  You can download all the Public Service Announcements by visting this page.

Reason for The Free Internet Project's Public Service Announcements on Election Misinformation

Social media companies including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest, Reddit, and other companies have content moderation policies that prohibit election misinformation and voter suppression on their platforms in anticipation of the 2020 U.S. elections. These companies fear a repeat of the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. As the bipartisan U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported in thousands of pages of its report on "Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election," the Russian operative group Internet Research Agency used American-based social media platforms to interfere with the 2016 election. "Masquerading as Americans, these operatives used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States. This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government's covert support of Russia's favored candidate in the U.S. presidential election." (Vol. 2, p. 3).

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media companies are now working hard to protect American voters from the same kind of fake news and fake content exploited by the Russian operatives in the 2016 election. But no social media platform is entirely immune from such foreign interference or attacks. On September 22, 2020, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued a public service announcement to warn Americans of a new kind of worry for the 2020 election: "the potential threat posed by attempts to spread disinformation regarding the results of the 2020 elections." 

Our goal at The Free Internet Project is to help Americans avoid election misinformation and fake election results. We provide basic information explaining what election misinformation is, give several examples of fake ads and fake accounts used by Russian operatives in the 2016 election, and offer several tips for people to protect themselves on social media. 

Explanation of The Free Internet Project's Public Service Announcements on How to Avoid Election Misinformation

1.  Definition of election misinformation

We first define "election misinformation": "Election misinformation is false, deceptive, or inaccurate information related to the election." It can come in the form of fake news, fake accounts, fake election results, or other misleading content intended to suppress or change your vote, or to discredit the election process. Americans should understand that some election misinformation may expressly include false or misleading claims about the candidates, the voting process, mail-in ballots, voter fraud or purported irregularities in voting, or the election results (who won). But some election misinformation doesn't even mention the election itself, but instead comes in the form of fake content posted from fake accounts on social media intended to make you believe they share your views. These fake accounts pose as Americans supporting particular and often popular causes, such as racial justice, Second Amendment gun rights, support for the police, and LGBTQ rights. In the 2016 U.S. election, Russian operatives used these kinds of fake American accounts to sow discord in U.S. and polarize voters. Volume 2 of the bipartisan Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election: Russia's Use of Social Media with Additional View, especially pp. 32-71, is the best source to read for examples of the Russian operatives' extensive election misinformation. This year, the FBI and CISA have special concern about foreign interference that may seek to spread fake election results and fake news about voter fraud or other purported irregularities in voting, in order to cast doubt on the verified election results from the states. We discuss this concern in No. 4 below. The key to remember is that election misinformation comes in many forms--possibly even new forms that won't be easy to recognize or detect. Beware.

2.  Stop: Don't rely on or share unverified sources on social media. They can be fake accounts, manipulated videos, and other misleading content intended to suppress or change your vote, or to delegitimize the election.


In their Sept. 22, 2020 public service announcement, "the FBI and CISA urge the American public to critically evaluate the sources of the information they consume and to seek out reliable and verified information from trusted sources, such as state and local election officials." Social media companies, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, have set up voting or election information centers for their users that contain trusted sources identified by those companies. One of the safest practices for social media is to rely only on sources that you know are verified trusted sources. Some companies verify users with a check mark inside a blue circle, but just because users have that symbol does not mean that they are a trusted source of news or election information.  Another safe practice is to rely on multiple trusted sources before you reach any conclusions about a news report.

3.  Caution: Be cautious with "friends" or "followers" on social media you don't know. They might be fake accounts trying to make you believe they are on your side. They aren't.

Many Americans may not realize that, in the 2016 election, Russian operatives posed as Americans on social media and acted like they shared your political views on both sides of the political spectrum. The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Report described in Volume 2, p. 3:  "Masquerading as Americans, these operatives used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States. This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government's covert support of Russia's favored candidate in the U.S. presidential election." We have used examples of posts from the fake accounts run by Russian operatives in the 2016, which were analyzed by the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as HPSCI Minority Open Hearing Exhibits. These examples show that the Russian operatives tried to trick Americans into believing they were on your side, so they could manipulate Americans. As the Senate Intelligence Committee explained in Volume 2 at p. 32-33: "In practice, the IRA's influence operatives dedicated the balance of their effort to establishing the credibility of their online personas, such as by posting innocuous content designed to appeal to like-minded users. This innocuous content allowed IRA influence operatives to build character details for their fake personas, such as a conservative Southerner or a liberal activist, until the opportune moment arrived when the account was used to deliver tailored 'payload content' designed to influence the targeted user. By this concept of operations, the volume and content of posts can obscure the actual objective behind the influence operation. 'If you're running a propaganda outfit, most of what you publish is factual so that you're taken seriously,' Graphika CEO and TAG researcher John Kelly described to the Committee, '[T]hen you can slip in the wrong thing at exactly the right time.'" In other words, your "friends" on social media may be your enemies trying to trick you.

4.  Caution: The FBI warns don't fall for fake election results or fake news about voter fraud or irregularities in voting.

In their Sept. 22, 2020 public service announcement, the FBI and CISA warn that foreign actors and cybercriminals may attempt to spread disinformation about the 2020 election results or other false information "to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions. Given the pandemic, this year's voting may have increased use of mail-in ballots that may require greater time to tabulate. "Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy." We offer several tips drawn from the FBI and CISA public service announcement: 

How to avoid fake election results or fake news of voting problems. 

  • “For information about final election results, rely on state and local government election officials."

  • "Verify through multiple reliable sources any reports about problems in voting or election results, and consider searching for other reliable sources before sharing such information via social media or other avenues.”

  • When you are waiting for election results: “Seek out information from trustworthy sources, such as state and local election officials; verify who produced the content; and consider their intent.”

​How to report election misinformation to social media companies or election crimes to the FBI.

  • “If appropriate, make use of in-platform tools offered by social media companies for reporting suspicious posts that appear to be spreading false or inconsistent information about election-related problems or results.” (See the next section below.)

  •  “Report potential election crimes—such as disinformation about the manner, time, or place of voting—to the FBI. The FBI encourages victims to report information concerning suspicious or criminal activity to their local field office"

5.  Go: These safe practices protect everyone on social media.

6.  Go: Vote!

Election Day is Tuesday, November 3. Many states have early voting and mail-in ballots. The U.S. Election Assistance Committee provides a collection of state voting resources at

Sources for the Public Service Announcements

We have studied the available information from U.S. government sources on the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and on the current threat of foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. election. We have also reviewed the community standards of the major social media companies and their announced efforts to combat election misinformation and foreign interference. The primary sources of our public service announcements come from the following: 

  1. FBI and CISA, Public Service Announcement, "Foreign Actors and Cybercriminals Likely to Spread Disinformation Regarding 2020 Election Results," Sept. 22, 2020. 
  2. Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election, Vol. 2: Russia's Use of Social Media with Additional View 
  3. U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, HPSCI Minority Open Hearing Exhibits 
  4. We have also reviewed the community standards of all the major social media companies, as well as news reports of their ongoing efforts to stop election misinformation. 
  5. We also reviewed the Department of Homeland Security's "Homeland Threat Assessment October 2020." which warns: " Threats to our election have been another rapidly evolving issue. Nation-states like China, Russia, and Iran will try to use cyber capabilities or foreign influence to compromise or disrupt infrastructure related to the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, aggravate social and racial tensions, undermine trust in U.S. authorities, and criticize our elected officials." (at 5)

Where you can report election crimes

Where you can report election misinformation on social media

Our Commitment to Nonpartisanship

The Free Internet Project is a Section 501(c)(3) organization. We steadfastly abide by the requirement of avoiding any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office. We believe that, in our democracy, every citizen's right to vote their preference should be respected. We have relied on U.S. government sources, including the current FBI and CISA, and the bipartisan Report of the U.S. Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, to provide verified information. Our public service announcements are intended as a voter education guide, similar to the Sept. 22, 2020 public service announcement by the FBI and CISA. Nothing in our public service announcements should be interpreted as an endorsement or opposition to any candidate for any public office.  


Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook to suspend political ads week before US election, add a label to premature election claims of victory

On September 3, 2020, Mark Zuckerberg published a lengthy post on his personal Facebook profile, detailing dramatic new measures Facebook is undertaking to safeguard the integrity of the U.S. elections. Zuckerberg wrote [we've added topical descriptions in brackets]:

Today, we're announcing additional steps we're taking at Facebook to encourage voting, connect people with authoritative information, and fight misinformation. These changes reflect what we've learned from our elections work over the past four years and the conversations we've had with voting rights experts and our civil rights auditors:

[Reliable Information at the top of page] We will put authoritative information from our Voting Information Center at the top of Facebook and Instagram almost every day until the election. This will include video tutorials on how to vote by mail, and information on deadlines for registering and voting in your state.

[No political ads starting the week before the election] We're going to block new political and issue ads during the final week of the campaign. It's important that campaigns can run get out the vote campaigns, and I generally believe the best antidote to bad speech is more speech, but in the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims. So in the week before the election, we won't accept new political or issue ads. Advertisers will be able to continue running ads they started running before the final week and adjust the targeting for those ads, but those ads will already be published transparently in our Ads Library so anyone, including fact-checkers and journalists, can scrutinize them.

[Partnering with state election authorities to identify election misinformation] We're going to extend our work with election officials to remove misinformation about voting. We already committed to partnering with state election authorities to identify and remove false claims about polling conditions in the last 72 hours of the campaign, but given that this election will include large amounts of early voting, we're extending that period to begin now and continue through the election until we have a clear result. We've already consulted with state election officials on whether certain voting claims are accurate.

[Limit the number of chats you can forward on Messenger] We're reducing the risk of misinformation and harmful content going viral by limiting forwarding on Messenger. You'll still be able to share information about the election, but we'll limit the number of chats you can forward a message to at one time. We've already implemented this in WhatsApp during sensitive periods and have found it to be an effective method of preventing misinformation from spreading in many countries.

[Remove both explicit and implicit voting misinformation] No political ads starting the week before the election] We're expanding our voter suppression policies. We already remove explicit misrepresentations about how or when to vote that could cause someone to lose their opportunity to vote -- for example, saying things like "you can send in your mail ballot up to 3 days after election day", which is obviously not true. (In most states, mail-in ballots have to be *received* by election day, not just mailed, in order to be counted.) We're now expanding this policy to include implicit misrepresentations about voting too, like "I hear anybody with a driver's license gets a ballot this year", because it might mislead you about what you need to do to get a ballot, even if that wouldn't necessarily invalidate your vote by itself.

[Remove COVID-misinformation to scare voters from voting] We're putting in place rules against using threats related to Covid-19 to discourage voting. We will remove posts with claims that people will get Covid-19 if they take part in voting. We'll attach a link to authoritative information about Covid-19 to posts that might use the virus to discourage voting, and we're not going to allow this kind of content in ads. Given the unique circumstances of this election, it's especially important that people have accurate information about the many ways to vote safely, and that Covid-19 isn't used to scare people into not exercising their right to vote.

Measure to stop false or premature election results 

Since the pandemic means that many of us will be voting by mail, and since some states may still be counting valid ballots after election day, many experts are predicting that we may not have a final result on election night. It's important that we prepare for this possibility in advance and understand that there could be a period of intense claims and counter-claims as the final results are counted. This could be a very heated period, so we're preparing the following policies to help in the days and weeks after voting ends:

[Facebook Voting Information Center provide information on time it takes to count votes] We'll use the Voting Information Center to prepare people for the possibility that it may take a while to get official results. This information will help people understand that there is nothing illegitimate about not having a result on election night.

[Partner with Reuters and National Election Pool for authoritative information on relection results] We're partnering with Reuters and the National Election Pool to provide authoritative information about election results. We'll show this in the Voting Information Center so it's easily accessible, and we'll notify people proactively as results become available. Importantly, if any candidate or campaign tries to declare victory before the results are in, we'll add a label to their post educating that official results are not yet in and directing people to the official results.

• [Label posts that attempt to deligitimize the election results] We will attach an informational label to content that seeks to delegitimize the outcome of the election or discuss the legitimacy of voting methods, for example, by claiming that lawful methods of voting will lead to fraud. This label will provide basic authoritative information about the integrity of the election and voting methods.

[Expand Facebook policy against content with violence and harm directed at election officials] We'll enforce our violence and harm policies more broadly by expanding our definition of high-risk people to include election officials in order to help prevent any attempts to pressure or harm them, especially while they're fulfilling their critical obligations to oversee the vote counting.

• [Expand Facebook policy against militia and conspiracy groups organizing or supporting violence] We've already strengthened our enforcement against militias, conspiracy networks like QAnon, and other groups that could be used to organize violence or civil unrest in the period after the elections. We have already removed thousands of these groups and removed even more from being included in our recommendations and search results. We will continue to ramp up enforcement against these groups over the coming weeks.

It's important to recognize that there may be legitimate concerns about the electoral process over the coming months. We want to make sure people can speak up if they encounter problems at the polls or have been prevented from voting, but that doesn't extend to spreading misinformation. We'll enforce the policies I outlined above as well as all our existing policies around voter suppression and voting misinformation, but to ensure there are clear and consistent rules, we are not planning to make further changes to our election-related policies between now and the official declaration of the result.

In addition to all of this, four years ago we encountered a new threat: coordinated online efforts by foreign governments and individuals to interfere in our elections. This threat hasn't gone away. Just this week, we took down a network of 13 accounts and 2 pages that were trying to mislead Americans and amplify division. We've invested heavily in our security systems and now have some of the most sophisticated teams and systems in the world to prevent these attacks. We've removed more than 100 networks worldwide engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior over the past couple of years, including ahead of major democratic elections. However, we're increasingly seeing attempts to undermine the legitimacy of our elections from within our own borders.

I believe our democracy is strong enough to withstand this challenge and deliver a free and fair election -- even if it takes time for every vote to be counted. We've voted during global pandemics before. We can do this. But it's going to take a concerted effort by all of us -- political parties and candidates, election authorities, the media and social networks, and ultimately voters as well -- to live up to our responsibilities. We all have a part to play in making sure that the democratic process works, and that every voter can make their voice heard where it matters most -- at the ballot box.


NYT: Facebook developing contingency plans and "kill switch" on political ads if Trump tries to "wrongly claim on the site that he won"

On Aug. 21, 2020, Mike Isaac and Sheera Frankel of the New York Times reported that Facebook is developing contingency plans just in case Donald Trump "wrongly claim[s] on the site that he won" contrary to the actual election results should they be against him. Facebook is also weighing how it should deal with Trump's attempts to delegitimize the actual election results by "by declaring that the Postal Service lost mail-in ballots or that other groups meddled with the vote." The source are "people with knowledge of Facebook's plans. Facebook is even considering creating a "kill switch" to remove political ads that contain false election results.

Google is also discussing contingency plans for the U.S. elections, but didn't reveal further details.

It's not hard to envision another nightmare Bush v. Gore scenario, in which the result of the presidential election is contested. Trump has already attacked mail-in voting.  According to the NYT, in part due to the pandemic, 9 states have mailed ballots to all voters, while 34 other states allow voters to elect mail-in voting for any reason and 7 states allow mail-in voting for certain reasons.  Prof. Ned Foley has highlighted one reason this year's election may result in a contested outcome and litigation: mail-in ballots typically result in a "blue shift" with more ballots for Democrats than Republicans in past elections from mail-in ballots for reasons that are not entirely clear.  Thus, in close races, the "blue shift" might flip a state from Republican to Democrat when the mail-in votes are counted, giving rise to unsubstantiaed claims of foul play. For more about this scenario, read this Atlantic article

How are Twitter, Facebook, other Internet platforms going to stop 2020 election misinformation in U.S.?

With millions of users within the United States on Facebook and Twitter, Internet platforms are becoming a common source of current event news, information, and outlets for socialization for many Americans. These social media platforms have been criticized for allowing the spread of misinformation regarding political issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. These criticisms began after misinformation spread during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Many misinformation sources went unchecked, therefore millions of Americans were convinced they were consuming legitimate news sources when they were actually reading “fake news.” It is safe to say that these platforms do not want to repeat those mistakes. Ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections, both Facebook and Twitter have taken various actions to ensure misinformation is not only identified, but either removed or flagged as untrue with links to easily accessible, credible resources for their users.

Facebook’s Plan to Stop Election Misinformation

Facebook has faced the most criticism regarding the spread of misinformation due. Facebook has created a voting information center, similar to a COVID-19 one, that will appear in the Facebook and Instagram menu.

Facebook's Voting Information Center

This hub will target United States users only and will contain election information based on the user’s geographic location. For example, if you live in Orange County, Florida, information on vote-by-mail options and poll locations in that area will be provided. In addition, Facebook plans on adding notations to some posts containing election misinformation on Facebook with a link to verified information in the voting information center. Facebook will have voting alerts which will “communicate election-related updates to users through the platform.” Only official government accounts will have access to these voting alerts. Yet one sore spot appears to remain for Facebook: Facebook doesn't fact-check the posts or ads of politicians because, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly said, Facebook does not want to be the "arbiter of truth." 

Twitter’s Plan to Stop Election Misinformation

Twitter has been in the press recently with their warnings on the bottom of a few of President Trump’s tweets for misinformation and glorification of violence. These warnings are part of Twitter’s community standards and Civic Integrity Policy, which was enacted in May 2020. This policy prohibits the use of “Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes.” Civic processes include “political elections, censuses, and major referenda and ballot initiatives.” Twitter also banned political campaign ads starting in October 2019. Twitter recently released a statement stating its aim is to “empower every eligible person to register to vote,” by providing various resources for them to educate themselves on issues surrounding our society today. Twitter officials stated to Reuters they will be expanding their Civic Integrity Policy to address election misinformation, such as mischaracterizations of mail-in voting. But, as TechCrunch points out, "hyperpartisan content or making broad claims that elections are 'rigged' ... do not currently constitute a civic integrity policy violation, per Twitter’s guidance." Twitter also announce dthat it will identify with a notation state-affiliated media, such as from Russia: 

In addition to these policies, Facebook and Twitter, as well as other information platforms including Microsoft, Pinterest, Verizon Media, LinkedIn, and Wikimedia Foundation have all decided to work closely with U.S. government agencies to make sure the integrity of the election is not jeopardized. These tech companies have specifically discussed how the upcoming political conventions and specific scenarios arising from the election results will be handled. Though no details have been given, this seems to be a promising start to ensuring the internet does more good than bad in relation to politics.

--written by Mariam Tabrez

ProPublica, FirstDraft study: Nearly 50% of Top Performing Facebook Posts on Mail-In Ballots Were False or Misleading

ProPublica and FirstDraft conducted a study of "Facebook posts using voting-related keywords — including the terms 'vote by mail,' 'mail-in ballots.' 'voter fraud' and 'stolen elections' — since early April [2020]." According to ProPublica, Donald Trump and conservatives have misprepresented that mail-in voting leads to voter fraud. That assertion has not been substantiated. For example, the Washington Post found states with all-mail elections — Colorado, Oregon and Washington— had only 372 potential irregularities of 14.6 million votes, meaning just or 0.0025%. According to a recent study by Prof. Nicolas Berlibski and others, unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud can negatively affect public confidence in elections. The false claims can significantly undermine the faith of voters, Republican or Democratic, in the electoral process, even when the misinformation is disproved by fact-checks.  

In the study, ProPublica and FirstDraft found numerous posts on Facebook that contained misinformation about mail-in ballots. The study concluded: "Of the top 50 posts, ranked by total interactions, that mentioned voting by mail since April 1, 2020 [to July 2020] contained false or substantially misleading claims about voting, particularly about mail-in ballots." ProPublica identified the popular Facebook posts by using engagement data from CrowdTangle.

Facebook’s community standards state that no one shall post content that contains “[m]isrepresentation of the . . . methods for voting or voter registration or census participation.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently said on his Facebook page in June 2020 that he stands against “anything that incites violence or suppresses voting,” and that the company is “running the largest voting information campaign in American history . . . to connect people with authoritative information about the elections . . . crack down on voter suppression, and fight hate speech.” Facebook reportedly removed more than 100,000 posts from Facebook and Instagram that violated the company's community standard against voter suppression from March to May 2020. As ProPublica reported, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla stated that "Facebook has removed more than 90% of false posts referred to it by VoteSure, a 2018 initiative by the state of California to educate voters and flag misinformation."

However, according to the joint project by ProPublica and First Draft, Facebook is still falling well short in the efforts to stop election misinformation. Facebook fails to take down posts from individual accounts and group pages that contain false claims about mail-in ballots and voter fraud, including some portraying "people of color as the face of voter fraud." 

Facebook is reported to be considering banning political ads in the days before the election, but that hardly touches the core of the truly rampant fraud— misinformation of the public about mail ballots. False claims are far more widespread in posts than ads, according to the ProPublica and FirstDraft study.

--written by Yucheng “Quentin” Cui

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