11 July 2024

Election experts reported new conspiracy theories spreading across Twitter and other social media platforms as Americans headed to the polls on Tuesday, days after Twitter Inc fired half its staff and new owner Elon Musk tweeted a recommendation to vote for Republican candidates.

Discussion on Twitter included posts about voting machine problems in Maricopa County, Arizona, and Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and spiked after popular commentators alleged the malfunctions were deliberate, said the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of research groups studying online election information.

Maricopa County election officials said in a video on Twitter that the issues would not affect vote counting and that ballots would be kept in locked boxes to be counted later. Luzerne County extended voting hours to compensate for the issues, local media reported.

Both of the counties are among 64 jurisdictions that U.S. Justice Department officials are monitoring for voting rights violations, as voters in both states are electing U.S. senators in closely followed races.

The term “cheating” was trending on Twitter as of midday, without further details. Before the layoffs on Friday, Twitter had employed a team of curation specialists whose duties included adding context to trending topics. The entire team was let go.

Twitter’s personnel reductions also appeared to have resulted in a “big slowdown” in the company’s responses to outside reports of false narratives, according to Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization that runs a social media monitoring program to identify voter suppression efforts.

Common Cause said it flagged posts that falsely claimed delayed voting results would constitute fraud, but Twitter had not taken any action by Tuesday afternoon.

“Twitter is hopeless and not responding beyond replying that they are looking into something and then going dark on it for days,” the group said in an emailed update, noting that the company’s response time was previously about one to three hours.

Twitter, which has lost many members of its communications team in the layoffs, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Conspiracy theorists also began baselessly warning voters that Wi-Fi networks at their polling locations could be suspicious and connected to voting machines, said Jesse Littlewood, vice president for campaigns at Common Cause, during a news briefing.

The warnings appeared to originate on messaging app Telegram before spreading to more mainstream social media platforms, said Common Cause.

Littlewood added that the existence of a Wi-Fi network does not mean it is connected to any machines.

Musk gutted many of Twitter’s teams responsible for elevating credible information last week, including human rights and machine learning ethics, after taking control in a $44 billion acquisition.

The layoffs also affected engineers across product and core infrastructure teams.

Over the weekend, Twitter compiled lists of people it had accidentally laid off and planned to ask them to return, according to sources familiar with the matter and an internal Slack message reviewed by Reuters.

Both Musk and Twitter’s head of safety and integrity Yoel Roth have sought to reassure users, civil rights groups and advertisers, tweeting that Twitter would uphold and enforce its election integrity policies through the U.S. midterms.

Roth said on Friday that his safety team, which is responsible for clamping down on harmful content, suffered less impact from the layoffs than other teams.

Twitter also decided to delay the rollout of an option for premium Twitter subscribers to pay for their profiles to be verified until after the election, Roth tweeted on Monday night.