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How you can avoid disinformation about election vote counting and the results

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is Election Day, the last chance to make your voice heard through your vote. Results might be slow coming, though, because of the number of mail-in ballots this year. That lag time before getting conclusive winners gives disinformation a chance to spread. There's already been a lot of it this campaign season from both foreign and domestic sources. Yesterday, the founder of a Russian private military organization known as the Wagner Group said that he has interfered in this year's midterms and some in the past, and he said he would commit to interfering in future U.S. elections. For more, we turn to Nina Jankowicz. She was the executive director of the Biden administration's short-lived Disinformation Governance Board and is now with the Centre for Information Resilience. Thank you so much for being with us.

NINA JANKOWICZ: Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: So this is a Russian billionaire with close ties to Vladimir Putin saying he is trying to mess with the U.S. election. What do you make of the timing of his admission?

JANKOWICZ: Well, I think the timing of this admission is not a mistake. It is meant to inspire distrust in the election process as millions of Americans are heading to the polls. And it in itself is an influence operation, probably meant to make up for the fact that Russia's troll farm operations this year, the ones that have been uncovered so far, have not seen a lot of engagement on social media. This is a last-ditch effort.

MARTIN: So beyond foreign interference, which, as you say, in and of itself is dangerous, there's also the preponderance of false claims by supporters of former President Donald Trump, political operatives and certain campaigns. As someone who studies disinformation and its effect on societies, how dangerous is this?

JANKOWICZ: Well, you know, I think we shouldn't see Russian disinformation as the biggest informational threat to the United States right now. Russia's playbook has always been to weaponize preexisting fissures in our society, and we have plenty of those. Sixty percent of Americans have an election denier on the ballot today. And the GOP, in embracing these tactics of disinformation, is basically doing Russia's work for them, China's work for them, Iran's work for them. These fissures, again, are the ones that our adversaries are seizing onto and amplifying as we go to the polls today.

MARTIN: What's the short and long-term impact of disinformation campaigns on a nation's psyche?

JANKOWICZ: Well, Rachel, I have spent a lot of time in nations like Ukraine, the Republic of Georgia - places where election interference was the norm, not, you know, an outlier. And these are things that have a very long-term impact. It's not just one election. You know, people outgrow them. They really stay in people's voting behaviors for a long time. And when people are distrusting the election process, that's something that reaches beyond one election system when they're casting their ballot. It means that they're going to be worrying about the sanctity of their vote for essentially generations to come. And so I think we all need to think about, you know, when we're peddling these lies, when we're engaging with these disinformation campaigns online, the effect that that has for our democracy downstream. It's not about who wins or loses today. It's about the health of our democratic institutions for years to come.

MARTIN: Is there evidence in other countries, Nina, that the spread of disinformation reduces turnout, if people just don't believe their vote is going to count?

JANKOWICZ: Well, you know, I think - yeah, absolutely. So we haven't seen that effect in the United States so far, but I think we've seen that effect in the way that people are engaging in countries abroad. When there is distrust in the system, people are less likely to believe that their vote matters, that their voice matters. And we need people's engagement, their - doing their civic duty in order for democracy to work. So absolutely, there's a - you know, an argument that disinformation is degrading democracy.

MARTIN: Let's get down to the nuts and bolts, really practical help for people out there. What are three things that voters in the U.S. can keep in mind to decipher between fact and fiction as election results come in this week and beyond?

JANKOWICZ: Yeah, well, I think the most important thing, as you mentioned at the outset, is that, particularly in closely contested races, these results may take some time to become clear. So during this time, it's best to get your information directly from the source, your local election administrator. On social media, remember that the most engaging content online is the most enraging content, and if you feel yourself getting emotional, it's a good idea to be skeptical of the information that you're encountering. And then finally, just remember that our voting infrastructure is secure. We've seen no evidence of cyber interference from any country. So you can...

(SOUNDBITE OF CAT MEOWING)

JANKOWICZ: My cat agrees. You can be sure that your vote is going to be counted.

MARTIN: Nina Jankowicz with the Centre for Information Resilience, a disinformation expert - we appreciate your time. Thank you.

JANKOWICZ: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.