Political campaigns in the United States are notorious for inspiring dirty tricks and nasty tactics. Now, in the most tech-attuned presidential race to date, the dark art of misleading voters is growing even more malignant than it was in the past.
The Internet adds powerful ammunition to the election scammer’s arsenal–and odds are, some of these nasty virtual shots have already been fired your way.
Web of Lies
Election deception is nothing new. For decades, underhanded political operatives have spread lies to impressionable voters–disseminating disinformation about everything from changes in election dates to canceled caucuses. The difference now is that the falsifications are easier than ever to spread.
“You’re no longer constrained to a geographical community to impact,” says Tova Wang, vice president for research of Common Cause. “Now you can pick your communities by other types of profiles than just where people live.”
Add to that previously unavailable level of access the anonymity permitted by the Internet, and you have a situation where unethical (and in some cases illegal) behavior seems likely to go unpunished.
Part 1: Five Nastiest Methods to Persuade Voters Not to Vote
Our dirty dozen tricks start with five deceptive ways that political schemers are manipulating the Web to discourage would-be voters from voting.
1. Inbox Infestation
One of the Internet’s oldest tricks has acquired a new political spin. Scammers send mass e-mailings that appear to come from legitimate addresses–often ones belonging to campaign or election officials. The problem? The messages contain inaccurate information. This ploy was used against Mitt Romney during the presidential primaries, and voter rights advocates fear that it could resurface as a way to steer citizens away from the polls.
“Some of the things we’ve seen in the primary and caucus processes indicate that deceptive attacks have happened, and that certainly similar types of attacks may be attempted for the general election,” says Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
2. Web Site Wiles
Some scammers have adopted the strategy of orchestrating Web site-based attacks. These may take the form of actual hacks–remember the Obama-Clinton redirect exploit back in April?–but more commonly they involve creating an independent site whose URL suggests affiliation with a candidate or organization but whose content dishonestly promotes a hostile agenda.
“People get domain names that sound like they could be the official campaign names, and then have on there links to all sorts of misinformation and criticism of the candidate,” Wang says. “The potential is there…that someone could do the same thing with respect to a secretary of state Web site or the Web site of a voting rights organization.”
3. Phony Phoning
Perhaps the fastest growing form of Web deception is in the use of voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) technology. Much as their predecessors did in the phone-bank campaigns of yesteryear, tricksters call unsuspecting voters–this time via the Internet–to try to dissuade them from casting ballots. Unfortunately, VoIP makes these efforts easier, cheaper, and less traceable than ever.
“You can do it in a matter of minutes,” Coney says. “The per-call cost is so low that it’s minuscule compared to a typical telephone banking service.”
4. Texting Tricks
Mobile text messaging has made enormous headway as a campaign tool in this 21st century race, but hot on the heels of the benefits come the abuses. Take, for example, Senator Barack Obama’s plan to announce his VP pick via text. It didn’t take long for fake revelations to reach the masses–and thanks to the slew of free Web-based texting tools available, it probably didn’t take much time or money, either. The same approach could reappear with a message calculated to cause polling-day confusion.
5. Social Network Stunts
Voters, particularly younger ones, spend lots of time on social networks, and the candidates know it–as do the scammers. Observers have already reported signs of misuse, ranging from fake profiles to mass postings of erroneous information, and they are watching for more as November 4 draws near.
Part 2: Seven Most Malicious Political Messages on the Web
From the media to the messages, we now switch gears to consider the seven biggest election-related lies currently circulating around the Web.
1. You Might Get Arrested for Showing Up at the Polls.
One of the hottest and most misleading rumors is that undercover officers will be staking out polling sites to apprehend people against whom the government has outstanding arrest warrants, or even records of unpaid traffic tickets. It couldn’t be more untrue.
2. You Can’t Vote If You’re Facing Home Foreclosure.
The notion that having your home in foreclosure may bar you from voting has been spreading fast and far. One Web site even quoted a Republican Party official in Michigan as confirming it. The official denied that any such restriction exists, and voter eligibility laws concur: The status of your home is not connected to your right to vote.
3. Out-of-State College Students Can’t Vote Where They Go to School.
This rumor is specific to students who attend college out-of-state or in another city but continue to be listed as dependents on their parent’s income tax returns. A freewheeling “misinterpretation” of election law led to this unfounded claim. Rest assured, students, that the correct answer here is “false.”
4. Wearing Political Buttons or Shirts Could Get You Turned Away on Election Day.
E-mail broadsides have spread this rumor, but it seriously misrepresents the actual situation. Most states permit voters to wear whatever they want to the voting booth, as long as they aren’t distributing campaign materials inside the polling place. A handful of states disallow campaign-related clothing. But even in those states, poll workers wouldn’t remove you from the voting rolls if you showed up decked out in your partisan regalia. They’d simply ask you to cover the logo or turn the shirt inside out–or at worst to go home and change into something a little more secret-ballot-friendly.
5. Your Polling Place or the Election Date Has Changed.
This is a classic keep-the-enemy-home-on-election-day strategy–and any such election-eve switcheroo is highly unlikely to be authentic. If you receive an e-mail message, text message, or phone call in the run-up to November 4 stating that the voting date or your polling place has changed, call your the office of your local supervisor of elections directly to confirm the information before changing your voting plans.
6. You Can Vote Over the Phone.
Phone-based campaigns, quite possibly VoIP-powered, are propagating this myth in an effort to prevent people from going to the polls. Hang up on the call, and hang this harmful lie out to dry.
7. If the Names on Your Driver’s License and on Your Voter Registration Card Don’t Match Exactly, You Can’t Vote.
Another false factoid. Different states have different requirements, but none would deny you the right to vote over this type of data inconsistency. At worst, you’d be asked to cast a provisional ballot and then straighten things out the following day.
Crime and Punishment
“One of the things about the Internet is that there are no traffic cops–there’s no authority to verify the identity of those who are communicating with each other online,” says EPIC’s Lillie Coney.
Separating fact from fiction might seem simple, but even the most tech-savvy people are seeing surprises this election season. Information is power, however, and recognizing misused methods and malicious messages for what they are is your strongest armor against the web of lies.
Voter-rights advocates say that the dirty tricks they’re seeing aren’t honest mistakes, and some are calling for laws that classify Web-driven deceit as a crime, with full enforcement provisions. “They usually are malicious, clearly malicious,” says Tova Wang of Common Cause. “We think that law enforcement should make it clear that these acts will be treated seriously and prosecuted.”
In the meantime, you can fight back by not falling for these shenanigans and by making sure that your friends and family are equally well informed. After all, every vote can count only if every vote can be cast.