A number of tweets were sent out on Tuesday encouraging Hillary Clinton supporters to vote for the candidate via text.
The well-crafted ads look similar to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign materials with use of her logo and the line "paid for by Hillary for President." One of the ads tweeted was in Spanish. Alleging that people can vote early and avoid the line, the ads called for users to vote now by texting "Hillary" to a number, as reported by Mashable.
But the fraud was quickly detected by some Twitter users, who pointed out that voting by text does not exist in the United States. Robert McNees, an associate physics professor at Loyola University Chicago and a Twitter user, reported the issue to the social media company as an attempt to "disenfranchise voters."
Twitter initially denied that it was a violation of their terms of service, but later took it down and Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey personally Tweeted gratitude to Mr. McNees, saying they were "not sure how this got past us."
While the attempt to misinform voters through a couple of Tweets may appear to be innocuous mischief, the incident has elicited concern in this election season rife with talk of rigging and claims of voter suppression. But the strategy of using social media to misinform is actually a familiar one – and some experts say may increase in frequency as more people rely on social media platforms for their news and information.
"If you think about how much putting an ad on TV costs, you could pay an army of people to post fake information and promote it through social networks," Filippo Menczer, associate professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, told The Atlantic in 2010. Based on his research, he anticipates future manipulation of the Twittersphere for political gains. "Spamming on social networks has very low cost and has the potential to influence a large amount of people."
Fake news on social media is already a concern. Stories with unbacked claims and conspiracy theories have gone viral on social media, potentially misleading viewers and even journalists. For example, as CNN reported, radio host Sean Hannity recently apologized for spreading the claim that President Obama deleted his endorsements of Clinton based on fake tweets on Twitter.
Hyperpartisan pages on Facebook, a recent Buzzfeed investigation reveals, are especially likely to spread false news as well.
Facebook, Twitter, and a number of news and technology organizations created a group called the First Draft Coalition last year to tackle fake stories, misinformation, and propaganda such as the tweets by Islamic extremists glorifying the Nice, France, attacks.
All this occurs as social media companies such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, have launched national voter registration campaigns credited with having increased registrations by more than 2,000 percent in some states. As the platforms become an increasingly vital tool for reaching voters, more scrutiny may be demanded to prevent them from also being a way to spread fraudulent information.
Alex Howard, senior analyst at Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for open government, tweeted late last month tips for verifying the news users get from Twitter:
As for the "text to vote" scam, while indicative of the influence of social media, the attempt was "short-lived and not well planned," as a Mashable reporter found that users will receive a message after texting to the number that makes it clear the ad was not endorsed by the Hillary Clinton campaign.