In this week’s article, I’m going to delve into the important issue of online voter suppression. I’ll give some examples of what voter suppression attempts look like on social media and explain specifically how disinformation is involved. I’ll also discuss the psychological drivers that make online voter suppression effective. In closing, I’ll suggest some ways that we can all fight back.
What is Voter Suppression?
Voter suppression is defined as “the use of specific tactics with the intent of manipulating the outcome of an election.” Historically, these tactics have included bringing in new voter ID laws, preventing early voting, purging voter rolls, and creating systematic disenfranchisement.
Voter suppression commonly affects minority and vulnerable groups, such as the elderly or disabled. In the United States, suppression attempts have existed as a practice ever since voting began, despite the original intention for voting to be open to all. The Jim Crow voting laws of 1877 are a prime example of historical voter suppression targeting the black vote.
Voter suppression happens in other countries too. For example, in 2019, the UK’s ruling Conservative Party introduced pilot schemes to require voters to produce photo identification at polling stations. Photo ID is not compulsory in the UK. Activists argued that this move would disenfranchise those sectors of society who do not hold a driving licence or passport; often the poor.
Voter Suppression in 2020
We live in a technologically advanced age, but voter suppression hasn’t stopped. If anything, it has become even more of a risk to democratic processes worldwide. The internet, and social media in particular, has given new scope to voter suppression attempts. Now, it’s easy for hostile foreign powers to conduct voter suppression campaigns targeting the citizens of another nation.
Online voter suppression is highly likely in 2020. Firstly, since 2016, falsehoods, conspiracy theories and uncertainty have characterized our information environment. It’s become the new normal. Add to that a pandemic, during which people are constantly online while feeling fearful and paranoid. Then top things off with a critical presidential election in a deeply polarized United States.
Foreign powers are also weighing in on the upcoming US election. China and Russia both have stakes in the outcome, but they’re pulling in opposite directions. According to a recent intelligence report, China is supporting Joe Biden, while Russia prefers a Trump win. Therefore, we can expect online voter suppression activity to be characterized along those dynamics.
Online Voter Suppression Examples
Let’s examine some examples of how voter suppression works in a social media environment.
Facebook groups, especially private locally-focused ones, are likely to become key targets for voter suppression attempts in the run up to US 2020. Tactics may include the following:
- Using fear, e.g. claims that COVID-19 is circulating and people should not go out to vote; claims about violent street protests near polling stations
- Spreading disinformation about the voting process, e.g. giving false polling station opening hours; claiming that only pencils can be used to mark the ballot; claiming that photo ID is essential.
- Creating apathy, e.g. earlier in 2020, Russian media sources were spreading a narrative that both Biden and Trump are bad options for president, because they both ‘have mental health issues’. The goal here is to discourage people from voting for either candidate.
- Targeting a candidate with malinformation, disinformation or conspiracy theories, e.g. the Clinton email leak of 2016 was the starting point for a lot of long-running activity intended to harm Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. In 2020, we’ve seen narratives circulating that question Joe Biden’s mental health, e.g. accusing him of having dementia or Alzheimer’s.
- Using Facebook’s micro-targeting capabilities to reach specific parts of the voting population with ads only visible to them. This provides endless scope for targeting vulnerable subsections with suppressive messages that other voters (and the press) will probably never see.
- Creating mistrust in the legitimacy of the voting process, e.g. by spreading online narratives about fraudulent behavior at the ballot box (e.g. when counting votes). NB: Dictators often use this tactic to discredit their opponents. For example, in 2019, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ordered a recount of the Istanbul mayoral election vote after his party lost.
- Combinations of any of the above, for example using Facebook micro targeted ads to deliver messaging about localized street violence or lockdowns, to discourage particular groups from going out to vote.
Voter Manipulation Example
There are other ways to direct a vote, which don’t quite fall into the category of voter suppression, but are worth mentioning as they may overlap. For example, it’s possible to astroturf the perception of divisions between subgroups on one political side.
Here’s an example from the UK. In the general election of 2019, the pro-Remain side (primarily Labour and Liberal Democrats) may have been subjected to online efforts aimed at turning groups against one another.
Creating this division would have been high stakes, because coordinated strategic voting for pro-Remain parties was considered the only way to oust sitting Conservative MPs. Done successfully, this could have prevented a Conservative (and pro-Brexit) majority in government.
I observed frequent activity in local Facebook groups that was in line with this goal, e.g. lots of supposedly pro-Remain users stating they ‘could never vote for Jeremy Corbyn’, claims that Labour was ‘communist’, claims that the Liberal Democrats were simply Conservatives under another moniker (‘yellow Tories’), and so on. (NB: Astroturfing has not yet been proven in this case. This example represents an educated assessment based on first-hand observation and background knowledge).
Instead of cooperating, Labour and Liberal Democrat voters turned against one another. Many refused to vote tactically, citing ideological reasons.
Those sentiments likely undermined the tactical voting initiative. They may have helped tilt the election outcome in favor of the Conservative Party/pro-Brexit side, which went on to win the election.
The Psychology of Online Voter Suppression
Online voter suppression works by tapping into many of the same psychological biases that make social media users vulnerable to disinformation in general, especially within a deeply polarized political environment.
Here, people are highly likely to interact online only with members of their own tribe, i.e. those who share their views. Interactions outside the tribe are likely to be hostile in nature, aimed at getting one up on the opponent.
A range of cognitive biases help our brains make sense of the world and avoid information overload. But some of them make us more susceptible to manipulation. For example, thanks to confirmation bias, we’re far more likely to believe information that fits our existing worldview. On the other hand, we’re quick to doubt that which does not.
Furthermore, we tend to engage positively with information shared by people we know, or who appear to be in our tribe. The problem is, badges of tribe membership (e.g. use of hashtags, flag emojis, or ideological statements in the bio) can easily be faked on social media. It’s not always easy to be sure if we’re interacting with a genuine person or someone with a political agenda.
How You Can Fight Back
- Question the incentives of all voting-related content that you see on social media.
- Know the tell-tale signs of inauthentic social media users (hint: examine the source carefully).
- Look for repetitive user behavior and single issue fixation.
- Be suspicious of users who try to stir up intergroup conflict over voting related issues.
- Think about tribalism, look out for those who use hyper-partisan language (e.g. lefty, commie, woke, libtard, MAGAT).
- Pause before sharing voting-related posts and think about what’s compelling you to share them. Is your need to share an emotion-driven knee-jerk response, or are you doing it in a more measured, rational way?
- Only pay attention to voting-related messages from trustworthy official sources (i.e. government websites or official social media accounts).
- Register to vote and go to your local polling station on voting day, no matter what happens. It’s NEVER a wasted exercise, no matter what some manipulators would like you to believe.
In this post, I briefly present the history of voter suppression and how it has evolved in the 21st century. I also give examples of how it manifests on social media. Then I touch on the psychological factors making us susceptible to it. I end with some suggestions for how ordinary social media users can fight back against potential voter suppression attempts.