US Election 2020: Amplifying False Voter Tampering Claims Using Screenshots

co-authored with Emily S Berk and Jonah Isaac

Pennsylvania is a battleground state in the US 2020 Presidential election, and voting processes in the area are ripe for targeting by disinformation campaigns. Strategic amplification of screenshots and other imagery allow groups of loosely-coordinated accounts to bypass content moderation systems, and quickly surface false narratives used to spread disinformation.

A screenshot of an Instagram story from @omg_seabass claims that while working as a poll worker in Pennsylvania, he threw out over a hundred ballots. The screenshot was shared on Twitter, and amplified by verified accounts. As the claim spread, calls for investigation rapidly followed.

However, @omg_seabass is not a poll worker, he is not registered in the state of Pennsylvania, nor is he connected to the Erie County Voter Registration Office, according to a fact check by The Dispatch.

Multiple versions of the screenshot are circulating, indicating the narrative has spread far enough that users are attempting to access the profile to verify the story for themselves. The Dispatch verified the image’s authenticity, however Sebastian has since made his account private. Therefore, the primary source of the claim is now inaccessible to the public. Screenshots of his post will be spread solely by third-party sources, making the image susceptible to False Context, a form of disinformation where genuine content is shared with false contextual information.

The screenshot is also being astroturfed in a coordinated manner towards politically-oriented discussions and accounts. Twitter users @Bluray1111 and @DavidB97206147 are systematically replying to Philadelphia voting threads with the claim and the screenshot. These two accounts are likely inauthentic — both accounts have joined Twitter recently (July 2020 and Sept. 2020), contain usernames with a word+random number combination, and feature profile pictures easily taken from the open internet.

Network Analysis

Image for post
Image for post

Continuing with the astroturfing, Twitter user @roxydoxy1527 systematically replied to various threads promoting the ballot tampering narrative. By tagging government organizations, these tweets attempt to raise awareness of the alleged Sebastian Machado ballot tampering. The government accounts tagged included the FBI, the Pennsylvania State Government, and the Pennsylvania State Department. Additionally, Twitter users tagged Donald Trump Jr and Rush Limbaugh.

The narrative received viral debunks from @stillgray and @hollandcourtney.

Conclusion

Amplification of a false claim, especially targeting a swing state, can prove harmful to any election. Screenshots that bypass content moderation systems, leveraging false context, were then combined with astroturfing by inauthentic accounts into political threads. This indicates a coordinated attempt at targeting voters in the swing state of Pennsylvania with a disinformation campaign.

Our dataset for the Philadelphia election screenshot can be found at the following link: https://github.com/memeticinfluence/philadelphia-election-screenshot

Visit us at www.memeticinfluence.com

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We offer boutique intelligence, technologies, and data for cross-platform analysis of coordinated inauthentic behavior. www.memeticinfluence.com

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