Misinformation analyst concerned by 'volume of conspiracy theorising' on Twitter during US midterms – ABC News
Catch up with The Loop, your quick wrap of this morning's news
For the latest flood and weather warnings, search on ABC Emergency
CheckMate is a weekly newsletter from RMIT FactLab which recaps the latest in the world of fact-checking and misinformation, drawing on the work of FactLab and its sister organisation, RMIT ABC Fact Check.
You can read the latest edition below, and subscribe to have the next newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.
This week, CheckMate asks the experts what Elon Musk's Twitter takeover means for misinformation on the platform.
We also tackle a slew of election-related falsehoods — from Donald Trump and the US midterms to local claims that Victorians can simply "move" their address to Premier Daniel Andrews's electorate in order to vote him out.
Changes made by new Twitter owner Elon Musk to the platform's rules and policies will have a "seismic impact" on the spread of misinformation, an expert has warned.
Misinformation and disinformation on Twitter will "grow in both scale and scope" as a result of Musk's intervention, according to Timothy Graham, an associate professor at the Queensland University of Technology.
"The drastic reductions to moderation staff and changes to platform architecture and Twitter rules and policies will mean more [misinformation and disinformation] on the site and in different ways," Dr Graham, who researches online bots, trolls and disinformation, told CheckMate.
Anne Kruger, director of the Asia Pacific division of the Information Futures Lab, said Musk's takeover served as a "timely reminder" of the dangers of all social media platforms.
"Ordinary citizens are vulnerable and exposed daily to everything from hacking, spam and malware to those maliciously spreading misinformation.
"This [imposes] real costs on democracy and the economy. Now is not the time to cut corners. Media and digital literacy skills are sorely lacking across all generations and demographics."
Dr Graham said he had been surprised by "the volume of conspiracy theorising" about the US midterm elections that had proliferated across the platform since Musk's takeover.
"Before Musk, voter fraud misinformation was a major problem but it was swiftly addressed (for example, manually preventing #StopTheSteal from trending)," he explained. "Now, voter fraud narratives have flooded the site. Musk himself has dabbled in them, too.
"Similarly, conspiracy theorising about the FTX crypto collapse is a major topic on the platform — again, Musk has even 'asked questions' about it."
Australians who invested in the FTX cryptocurrency exchange are unable to withdraw their funds as the company's local arm goes into voluntary administration.
Additionally, according to Dr Graham, new Twitter policies did not "inherit previous rules around COVID-19 misinformation and false information around conflict areas, notably Ukraine".
"I and other researchers are gravely concerned by these trends," he said.
"Some argue that Twitter may not survive as a result."
Causing chaos in recent weeks, meanwhile, has been a new feature allowing any user to pay for a check mark next to their name, a symbol previously reserved for verifying the authenticity of accounts Twitter deemed to be of "public interest".
While the feature's launch has been pushed back for now, Dr Graham says it is a "prescient example" of the growth in misinformation on Twitter, as "impersonation incidents on the site become out of control".
Writing in The Conversation recently, Dr Graham said that despite its flaws, Twitter's previous verification system "largely succeeded in rooting out a sizable chunk of illegitimate activity on the platform, and highlighted notable accounts in the public interest".
"In contrast, Musk's payment verification only verifies that a person has $US8," Dr Graham wrote, noting that for the "low cost of $US800 ($1,191), foreign adversaries can launch a network of 100 verified bot accounts", allowing those with enough money to "dominate the public sphere".
Impersonators and foreign actors are not the only merchants of misinformation experts are worried about. Musk himself has shared numerous tweets featuring inaccurate information, and has not taken kindly to being corrected.
In an email, Dr Kruger noted mis- and disinformation didn't "seem to be a central concern for Musk at this point in time".
"The focus from him has been on free speech — but we've already seen some ironies in terms of free speech when it comes to who was fired and why."
Indeed, earlier this week, for example, the site's new owner tweeted an apology for "Twitter being super slow in many countries", which he blamed on a technical process that affected Android devices.
But when Eric Frohnhoefer, who said he had spent six years working on the Twitter app, detailed in a series of tweets why Musk was "wrong", he was apparently fired.
Other misinformation shared by Musk and debunked by Twitter insiders includes an incorrect suggestion that his newly purchased platform drove a "massive number of clicks to other" websites and apps.
"Biggest click driver on the Internet by far," Musk said in a later-deleted tweet.
Elon Musk warns Twitter will permanently suspend any account on the social media platform that impersonates another.
According to Clair Diaz-Ortiz, a former Twitter employee of five years and the author of a book on media marketing, Musk's claim was "100 per cent false" and Twitter "knows it".
Another tweet from Musk, alleging activists were to blame for falling ad revenue on Twitter, earned itself a label normally applied by the platform itself, as the Washington Post reported.
"A Birdwatch note on the Musk tweet … cited a Guardian news article confirming that advertisers have paused spending amid concerns that Musk will scale back misinformation efforts on the platform," the article in the Washington Post said.
Before declaring in a falsehood-laden speech that he would again run for the Oval Office, former US president Donald Trump was one of many to push baseless claims about the integrity of last week's midterm elections.
Those elections ultimately saw the Democrats defy expectations by retaining control of the Senate and only narrowly losing the House of Representatives.
As the votes rolled in, Mr Trump launched a series of social media posts accusing officials in Arizona's most populous county of seeking to prevent Republicans from casting a ballot.
"They say that the machines aren't working," he claimed. "They want to delay you out of voting and you cannot allow them to."
But as fact-checkers with AFP found, although some 20 per cent of the county's polling places faced technical difficulties that day, it boiled down to a simple issue: Some ballot papers were printed with ink that was insufficiently dark to be read by vote-tabulating machines.
As Associated Press explained: "Some voters who tried to insert their ballots into voting tabulators were forced to wait and use other machines or were told they could leave their ballots in a drop box."
Those votes were expected to be counted the next day, and the county supervisor — notably, a Republican — confirmed that "every voter had the opportunity to vote and have their vote counted".
If successful, Donald Trump will return to the Oval Office in 2025 a different man to the novice politician he was when he first became president.
Some social media users sounded the alarm over the mere presence of the wireless internet near polling sites, warning that "our voting machines are not suppose (sic) to be connected to the internet".
But AFP found that such claims were misleading, not least because most voting machines cannot connect to the internet (though a handful of states use secure private networks to send unofficial results).
Meanwhile, Mr Trump was busy attacking states, including Pennsylvania, where officials were taking longer to tally votes than he would have liked.
"Pennsylvania just announced that it could take days to determine the winner. This is outrageous!" he posted.
However, officials had weeks ago flagged that results could be slowed down by rules that prevented them from processing mail-in ballots before election day.
In any event, AFP wrote, TV networks called the state in the early hours of November 9 — the same day as his social media post.
Elsewhere, a Trump-endorsed candidate stirred up controversy in the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, by accusing officials of "lawlessness" for continuing to accept votes long after the polls closed.
But Associated Press found that photos of voters queuing into the night were no cause for concern, with the state's electoral law allowing them to cast their vote after the official cut-off time so long as they were already in the queue by 8pm.
With the polls closed, Mr Trump saved perhaps his best till last, wildly claiming that he "stopped [Florida Governor Ron DeSantis's] election from being stolen" in 2018 by sending the FBI and US attorneys to stop the supposed "ballot theft" in Broward County.
PolitiFact awarded that claim a verdict of "pants on fire", finding no evidence to support it and noting that an investigation by the state's Department of Law Enforcement concluded there was "no evidence of fraudulent intent".
Closer to home, misinformation has continued to circulate in the lead-up to the Victorian election, now just weeks away.
In a widely shared social media post, Reignite Democracy Australia — a group that has shared misinformation in the past — claimed it knew of a person "moving into the seat of Mulgrave just in time to vote against [Premier] Dan Andrews".
"What a great idea," it added. "You can change your address anytime before 9th November."
But RMIT FactLab has labelled as false the suggestion that Victorians could simply change their address in order to vote in Mulgrave, so long as it was before registrations closed.
The original post was published 21 days before that November 8 deadline.
Freedom Party upper-house candidate Rebekah Spelman says she does not want Daniel Andrews dead, but she does not regret her "exaggerated" comments calling for the premier to be hanged.
According to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), which maintains the electoral roll jointly with the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC), voters must have lived at an address for at least a month before being enrolled.
It also said enrolment fraud was "a crime that we take seriously", warning that it regularly matched its data with that of licence authorities, Centrelink and the Australian Taxation Office.
Meanwhile, the VEC said it was an "offence under the Electoral Act for someone to enrol at an address that is not their principal place of residence" and that doing so would be supplying the VEC with "false and misleading information".
RMIT ABC Fact Check this week found the Victorian Labor Party was "still wrong" on an inaccurate claim about the Coalition's record on health spending in the state.
In a series of attack ads, Liberal leader Matthew Guy has been branded by Labor as "the Liberals' cuts guy" who, as a senior minister in the previous Coalition government, "cut $1 billion from health".
The claim is not new. An identical claim about health spending under the previous government — which was in power between December 2010 and December 2014 — was made prior to the last state election in 2018.
Labor is running ads with a claim about the Victorian opposition leader that doesn't stack up.
At that time, Fact Check found then-health minister Jill Hennessy to be "wrong" when she said: "The Victorian Liberals cut a billion dollars from health when they were last in office."
Unsurprisingly, nothing has changed in the last four years to alter that verdict.
Adjusted for inflation, health spending under the previous Coalition government grew from $8 billion in 2009-10 to $9.4 billion in 2014-15.
Additionally, the suggestion that Mr Guy was responsible for the cuts is misleading. He has never held a ministerial position related to health.
Edited by Ellen McCutchan and David Campbell
Got a fact that needs checking? Tweet us @ABCFactCheck or send us an email at [email protected]
See our full coverage of coronavirus
Fearlessly follow the facts no matter where they lead.
Send us your tip-offs, or let us know what you think.
Fact Check made in partnership with RMIT University
IFCN Fact-Checkers' Code of Principles Signatory
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
This service may include material from Agence France-Presse (AFP), APTN, Reuters, AAP, CNN and the BBC World Service which is copyright and cannot be reproduced.
AEST = Australian Eastern Standard Time which is 10 hours ahead of GMT (Greenwich Mean Time)