Iowa chaos highlights misinformation threat

The disastrous Iowa caucuses on Monday night underlined one of the most pressing challenges that social media platforms will face this year: misinformation from real, influential people in the United States, not just Russian trolls and other foreign actors.

As news emerged that the caucus results were delayed amid technical difficulties, conservative operatives on Facebook, Twitter and other top networks promoted a narrative that the caucuses were “rigged” by the Democratic establishment.

Popular users pointed fingers at the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Iowa Democratic Party, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the organization behind a glitchy voting app and even the party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

President Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, tweeted “rigged?” late Monday night, sparking a frenzy and garnering more than 6,000 retweets just as party officials, campaign staffers and cable news pundits were scrambling to understand why the caucus results weren’t coming in.

“Rigging ain’t easy,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, to an audience of 4.3 million followers, responding to a CNN segment announcing there were “still no results” on Tuesday morning.

And Sean Davis, the co-founder of the conservative website The Federalist who has almost 250,000 followers, tweeted without any evidence on Tuesday morning that the results were “taking forever because the data are 100% corrupted and they can’t track down all the original ballots, which were never secured and have zero chain of custody verification, for a manual recount.”

The key takeaway: Experts have spent years raising concerns that users based in the U.S. — people with political agendas and access to Twitter- or Facebook-sized microphones — could pose an even greater challenge to the social media platforms in 2020 than Russian or Iranian disinformation operatives.