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Katie Hobbs’ office flagged misinformation on Twitter. So did everyone else.

In Arizona, a move to combat online misinformation draws belated, and frequently inaccurate, scrutiny.

A woman with shoulder-length hair and glasses, wearing a string of pearls, hugs a woman in a white shirt whose back is to the camera.

Arizona Governor-elect Katie Hobbs hugs her twin sister, Becky Hobbs, at a rally to celebrate Hobbs’ victory on November 15, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Jon Cherry / Getty Images

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Hi, y’all,

As ever, fringe players in Arizona are spinning conspiracy theories at the pace of your average telenovela plot.

In recent days, news that — prior to announcing her candidacy for governor, the office to which she has now been elected — Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ office flagged two (2) tweets containing misinformation for review, ultimately leading to their removal, has spiraled into a plot in which Hobbs colluded with Twitter to “silence” critics and chill free speech.  For about, let’s say, thirty reasons, this is distorted and inaccurate, and proves the lengths to which Arizona-based conspiracy theorists will go to regain the spotlight after a devastating election cycle.

The reality (which most of us are living in) proceeded as follows:

On January 7, 2021 (24 hours after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a particularly wild time for election misinformation), Hobbs’ communications director sent an email to the Center for Internet Security, a nonprofit that works with all levels of government to assess and respond to cyber threats, asking for a review of two tweets that, she said, “falsely assert that the Voter Registration System is owned and therefore operated by foreign actors.”

CIS then forwarded the concerns to the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which reviewed them and sent them along to Twitter, which then evaluated the complaint again internally before deciding to remove the tweets. The complaint was following a well-established pathway that had been used thousands of times, one established partly to ensure local officials’ requests to remove misinformation received multiple levels of review.  

Assistant Secretary of State Allie Bones denied that this was an effort to “censor.” 

“There has been an effort among the SOS community to help ensure that accurate information about elections is shared and that social media platforms are not used to help perpetuate and spread mis-, dis-, or mal-information about elections,” she told Votebeat’s Jen Fifield. “When things are demonstrably false or not based in fact, that is not censoring anyone, that is ensuring that true facts are being shared.”

The tweets at issue in the request from Hobbs’ office were provably false, a violation of Twitter’s public terms of service. The two tweets — sent Jan. 4 and Jan. 5 — concerned a company called Sutherland Government Solutions, which the user said was contracted to implement the state’s new voter registration system and had “foreign” subcontractors. The next day the user upped the ante, accusing the company of being a “foreign corporation” and pondering, “Is our entire election system foreign owned?” 

But foreign in this case didn’t mean that the company was incorporated in a foreign country. The kernel of truth (more like a fragment?) is that the company isn’t headquartered in Arizona — it’s based in Rochester, N.Y., and its paperwork on file with the state reflects that it is “a foreign corporation organized under the laws of New York.” That’s a standard way to refer to a company incorporated in one state and registering to do business in another — in this case, Arizona. The company was hired by Hobbs’ predecessor to update the state’s aging voter registration system, and Hobbs inherited the project when she took office as secretary of state. And, when her office flagged the tweets in early January of last year, she was still five months away from announcing her candidacy for the governorship.

As in all conspiracies, the underlying veracity of the claims doesn’t matter to those committed to the narrative. Last week, Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward sent a letter to the state’s attorney general calling the news a “bombshell,” and twisting the facts to claim that Hobbs directly “pressured” Twitter to remove posts critical of her policies “while she was running to become Governor of Arizona.” There are multiple demonstrably false claims packed in there, but still, Ward asked the attorney general to “immediately investigate” what she characterized as “a government agency directing a private company (Twitter) to suppress free speech.”

It’s tempting to see this conspiracy theory as the last gasps of a dying movement, reeling from its failure to place a single statewide candidate into public office in November. I worry it’s also a symptom of something deeper, and something Votebeat has written about before in a variety of ways: the absolute refusal to accept the good faith efforts of election officials, spinning increasingly out of control.

This particular tale is erupting at a time when Twitter owner Elon Musk’s mass firings and policy shifts have made it harder for CIS and others to report misinformation, most of the employees responsible for policing misinformation are gone, and Musk is openly siding with the efforts of tinfoilers. Election conspiracy theories may have lost at the polls, but they are still winning on one of America’s leading information platforms.

I’ve decided to take a break from Twitter (find me, for now, on Instagram) — it feels increasingly like a hostile place used for entertainment value by a man apparently unsatisfied with electric cars and trips to space. Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard from dozens of elections administrators considering doing the same, either for themselves or on behalf of their offices, fearing the lack of protection against misinformation and harassment (which they’d never been satisfied with in the first place). 

If you’re one of those people, I want to hear from you. What pushed you over the edge? If you’re thinking about it, what threatens to tip you over? And, if you leave Twitter, where will you go instead to reach voters and others in the election community? Listservs? Post? Mastodon? Instagram? Tiktok? Hollering on street corners?

I fear that none of these options will really replace the ability for journalists, election administrators, and voters to talk to each other and their counterparts across the country, or make it as easy to quickly consume a lot of information at once across a variety of perspectives. If you think there’s something else that can, please tell me (I’m worried). 

A heads up: We’re taking time off from this newsletter for the holidays. We’ll be back on Jan. 2 with a look ahead at 2023.

Back Then

I hope you didn’t think the delayed results = fraud narrative started recently. Because — and shout out to Wendy Underhill at the NCSL for sending me the link to this book — here’s what Joseph Harris, a political science professor at the University of Washington, had to say about the subject when he wrote an entire book on election administration in 1934: “Another aspect of the matter of the quickness of the returns has a bearing on election frauds. If the returns come straggling in throughout the night and the following day, late returns excite no suspicion, while as a matter of fact certain precincts may be purposely held out so that the persons who have control of these precincts may steal votes, if necessary to win the election. During these hours throughout the night and the following day there is plenty of time to manipulate the ballot, or to write in the names of voters who failed to vote, and cast ballots for them-provided the election officers of the precinct are corrupt and are willing to carry out such frauds.” The author, though, turns this into a full-throated endorsement of voting machines, which he says tabulate results quickly enough that no fraud would be practicable or believed. “One solution of the problem is the voting machine, and it must be conceded that accuracy can be secured only by a mechanical count.” Oh, where are you now, Joe.  

New From Votebeat

In the two years since the 2020 election exposed gaps in the state’s voting law, the then-GOP-controlled House and Senate have been almost completely deadlocked with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf over which changes to make. But that dynamic could shift in the upcoming session, as Democrats have flipped the Pennsylvania House and will maintain control of the governor’s mansion, giving Democrats more leverage to advance a policy agenda, Carter Walker and Stephen Caruso report for Votebeat Pennsylvania and Spotlight PA.

When John Scott was appointed Texas secretary of state last year, he decided from the start he wanted to do things differently: He would focus his efforts on elections — perhaps the office’s most tedious and contentious responsibility. Now that he’s announced his end-of-year resignation, that shift might be the most lasting piece of his legacy, Natalia Contreras reports for Votebeat Texas. 

In Other Voting News

  • Some former election officials and election-security advocates are asking the federal government to investigate efforts by former President Donald Trump and allies to access, copy, and distribute voting software, saying it could have created security vulnerabilities for hackers, the Washington Post reported.
  • The nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life is again awarding grants to local election offices for election administration costs, despite a backlash against millions of dollars in funding it passed out for the 2020 election. The new round of grants will not be funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the group said, and is being awarded in jurisdictions that have not banned outside money for election costs, the Associated Press reported.
  • A federal appeals court in Colorado upheld a judgment assessing $187,000 in sanctions on two lawyers who brought a case against Dominion Voting Systems, election officials, and others that made sweeping allegations of wrongdoing in connection with the 2020 election, concluding the district court hadn’t abused its discretion in concluding the claims were made in bad faith, the Gazette reported
  • Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger is calling on state lawmakers to end runoff elections in the state, citing the strain on counties. Others have also called to end the practice, which is rooted in segregationism and is expensive for taxpayers, Georgia Public Broadcasting reported
  • The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation has concluded a voter fraud probe into former Mark Meadows, a former congressman and White House chief of staff in the Trump administration, and state prosecutors will decide whether to move forward with charges, the Associated Press reported.

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

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