Facing a Deluge of Misinformation, Colorado Takes the Offensive Against It

The state will combat false information on social media and even buy Google ads against it. But not enough other states are following suit.

By Nick Corasaniti and Davey Alba

Like so many modern election sagas, it started with a tweet.

In 2019, Jena Griswold, the newly installed secretary of state in Colorado, saw a tweet falsely claiming that her state’s election system had been hacked, using a picture of voting equipment as evidence.

“It wasn’t equipment that we even use in the state of Colorado,” Ms. Griswold, a Democrat, said. Though her office was able to contact Twitter and take the tweet down within an hour, the flare-up was yet another reminder of just how pervasive election misinformation had become since the 2016 presidential election.

To prevent deceptive tweets, doctored videos and other forms of misinformation from undermining Colorado’s elections, Ms. Griswold is starting a new initiative that will run ads on social media and expand digital outreach to help voters identify foreign misinformation.

The operation in Colorado comes as Ms. Griswold and other secretaries of state are bracing for a deluge of misinformation about voting as Election Day draws closer, forced to defend a decentralized election system that has shown a particular weakness to the impact of rumors and outright lies.

In September, the Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a joint statement with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, warning that foreign actors and cybercriminals are likely to “spread false information in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions.”

Ms. Griswold’s new initiative builds on an operation she set up this year within the secretary of state’s office. She hired Nathan Blumenthal, a former counterterrorism official at the Department of Homeland Security, to run the three-person operation, which in turn has hired outside vendors to help identify misinformation online, whether it is going viral on social media or lurking on obscure message boards.

The office will also buy Google ads against relevant search terms whenever a piece of misinformation begins to gain attention in an effort to help slow its spread. For example, if someone were to claim Colorado’s ballots were lost in a fire, the office could buy ads off searches for “Colorado ballot fire” and get the top results, with the ads providing real information. And it is kicking off a public awareness campaign using Facebook ads that will direct voters to check the secretary’s website, using the tagline “Opinions are fun, facts are better.”

Yet while Ms. Griswold is undertaking this new effort, and statewide election officials in states like California and Ohio operate similar programs, not all states have set up operations to combat misinformation.

That is partly because state election offices are among the most overworked and underfunded public agencies in the country, especially this year. When multiple nonpartisan organizations estimated that state offices would need approximately $2 billion in funding for the 2020 election, Congress gave them just $400 million as part of its pandemic relief efforts.

Major social media platforms have taken up some of the slack with their own plans to halt the spread of misinformation. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all cracked down on pages promoting the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, and Twitter said it was changing some basic features to slow the way information flows on its network.

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