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Threats sparked by disinformation could spark real world violence in Georgia, activists say

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By FERGAL GALLAGHER, ABC News

(WASHINGTON) — A spike in disinformation about the election process in Georgia has prompted online threats against officials, poll workers and campaign staff that activists fear could lead to real-world violence.

The pivotal runoff races in the state, slated for Jan. 5, hold the power of the Senate in the balance and come in the wake of a deeply divisive election cycle. Georgia went for a Democrat in the presidential race by a slim margin, prompting unsubstantiated claims of widespread fraud and attacks on Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, who stood by the integrity of the process.

Researchers from Fair Fight Action, an activist group that promotes voter participation in Georgia and is chaired by Stacey Abrams, have tracked a large increase in disinformation related to the state’s elections as conspiracy theories about the vote count promoted by President Donald Trump and his supporters have run rampant on social media.

The post-election spike of disinformation and the consumption by Georgia voters of disinformation has been “incredibly high,” said Fair Fight Action CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo on a recent press call organized by the group.

She said millions of Georgians every week are engaging in these narratives, which Fair Fight Action believes is contributing to the rise in online and real-world threats against public officials, campaign staff and poll workers in the state.

“As law enforcement, we condemn this in the strongest possible terms,” said Peter Koutoujian, the sheriff of Middlesex, Massachusetts, who spoke on the call and is a member of the group’s advisory committee and the president of the Major County Chiefs Association of America. “We will not stand for these attacks on election officials, and we certainly won’t stand by when voters are intimidated or made to feel unsafe.”

Threats take shape

Raffensperger, for instance, has been subject to large groups of Trump supporters protesting the results of the presidential election at his home and threatening his wife.

“Fulton County has received multiple bomb threats at polling areas, and this is getting out of hand,” Jordan Fuchs, Georgia’s deputy secretary of state, told ABC News. “It’s one thing to have your opinion out there, it’s another to wholesale make up information about voting machines, staffers — the whole nine yards. It’s just, there’s something wrong. There’s something wrong when leadership cannot come down and say, threats against election officials are wrong.”

In November, an Atlanta vote counter was forced into hiding when his home address was published online. That came after he was falsely accused of discarding votes in a debunked video that was published online.

On Dec. 4, Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling, a Republican, announced that a noose was found at the door of a 20-year-old contractor for Dominion Voting Systems, a company that provides voting machines in the state. Sterling has decried the allegations of voter fraud and failure of officials to speak out against the false narratives that have emerged.

On Dec. 2, a Gwinnett County elections worker was followed by a man livestreaming the encounter and falsely claiming the worker was moving an elections computer and a day later, a Cobb County elections worker was followed home and called a racial slur.

Fair fight researchers say this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the level of threats they’re seeing in online spaces.

“The challenge is that people are emboldened when they feel that they are anonymous,” Koutoujian said on the Fair Fight call.

Researchers from the group say part of the reason for the increase in volume of disinformation around the Georgia elections is that various conspiracy theory groups that previously had nothing to do with each other are coalescing as one both online and in person. People who believe election fraud conspiracies are going to rallies and meeting far-right activists and right-wing militias, turning them into radicalization events, the group said.

Propelled by elected leaders

Groh-Wargo said that the disinformation narrative being pushed by our elected leaders contributes to this hostile environment for election workers and voters.

A recent report by Advance Democracy Inc. (ADI), a nonprofit that conducts international research related to accountability and transparency in government, argued that President Trump was comfortably the largest driver of disinformation around the Georgia election process.

From Dec. 3-10, mentions of Georgia on Twitter almost doubled compared with the previous week, largely driven by Trump’s account. During that time, four of the top five posts were all from the president and all questioned the validity of the Georgia election results in some way.

The following week, mentions dropped again as the number of tweets from Trump dropped off, but the president was still responsible for the three most popular tweets, which again questioned the election results.

In an unusual move, Facebook extended Georgia poll workers protection usually reserved for elected officials and federal and state employees.

Under the “Facebook Protect” program, the company will monitor the account for hacking attempts and encourage users to increase security measures like two-factor authentication.

“We have specifically extended this offering to poll workers through their local election officials,” Facebook spokesperson Kevin McAlister told ABC News. “We’re also deploying the teams and technology we used in the general elections to fight voter suppression, misinformation and interference in the Georgia runoff elections.”

This comes after a Dec. 4 report from Avaaz, a nonprofit that tracks online disinformation, showed that Facebook’s efforts are failing to stop a large proportion of false posts related to the Georgia runoff.

The report showed that Facebook didn’t issue fact-checking labels on 60% of a selection of Georgia-related election misinformation. In 204 posts Avaaz analyzed, garnering 643,406 interactions, there were 12 different false claims, including about voter fraud, and violence targeting Black voters.

A separate report from nonprofit Stop Online Violence Against Women and Project Domino, a data science research nonprofit, found evidence that Black voters in Georgia were being targeted with disinformation on Twitter. The groups analyzed 150,000 tweets over a 30-day period and found evidence of coordinated efforts to disenfranchise African American voters around the use of certain hashtags, including #Blexit (Black exit from the democratic party) and #walkaway.

Koutoujian said he is worried that even if this disinformation doesn’t lead to real-world violence, the threat of it could help suppress the vote.

“Many might not take these threats as being real threats, but it has a very disquieting effect on their desire to get out and cast their vote,” he said.

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