This state of high alert was the result of the 2016 presidential election when the major online platforms were caught with their guard down as Russians inflamed the electorate with divisive messages, and falsehoods and hoaxes ran rampant.
Falsehoods spread wildly on TikTok and Parler. QAnon conspiracy theories circulated largely unchecked, even on social media’s largest platforms.
Yet, by and large, Big Tech was ready for the disinformation campaigns stalking voters on Election Day.
Early returns show Facebook and Twitter with a good shot at passing their biggest test since the 2016 election.
The last gasps of full-blown partisan warfare could have resulted in an unprecedented torrent of falsehoods, voter suppression efforts and even incitement to violence.
Instead, Election Day unfolded like just another Tuesday on social media. But, disinformation experts warn, all of that could change in the next 24 hours.
“I hesitate to speak too soon, but overall, we have not experienced the worst-case scenario today,” Daniel J. Jones, president of Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest research group which studies disinformation, told USA TODAY.
But, said Jones, a former FBI analyst and Senate investigator, “I remain worried.”
Election Day watch:How Pennsylvania became a social media misinformation battleground
TikTok and Parler:How other apps handle election misinformation
Billions of dollars invested, thousands of workers hired and dozens of new moderation policies crafted. All the preparations of the past four years came down to this singular moment in American history.
In this election cycle, misleading messages got started early.
On election eve, Facebook and Twitter posted warning labels on Trump posts claiming a Supreme Court decision last week that will allow some absentee ballots to be received after Election Day could lead to problems and even violence in the Pennsylvania election.
From left, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Right-wing media outlets and prominent conservatives on Tuesday began spreading unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud on Election Day, part of a misinformation campaign that accuses Democrats of trying to “steal the election” in the key battleground state.
A video showing a poll watcher wrongly being prevented from entering a polling center in Philadelphia was amplified by Woods, Donald Trump Jr. and pro-Trump personalities Diamond and Silk, setting off a social media chain reaction.
Numerous claims of voting irregularities quickly followed. Accelerating the spread of these allegations was the #StopTheSteal hashtag, which has been pushing the belief that Democrats are attempting to steal the election since September.
Dianne Gallagher, 58, of Frankfort, Illinois, says Instagram didn’t dwell too deeply into politics on Tuesday, though there were a lot of photos of people voting. She only peeked at Twitter and spotted “lots of trolls” and “lots of misinformation” but “I do think Twitter hit the fact checking better.”
Her takeaway? “I would like to think social media isn’t an accurate picture of our country,” she said. “If it is, we are utterly divided and it will take more than an election to fix that.”