The election is only a day away. While there are many things at stake in this election cycle—from COVID-19 to race to income inequality and numerous others—there is one important factor that will play a large role in how people cast their vote, how many people vote, and who they vote for: information.
The flow of information through media has always played an important role in any election; however, in this day and age, it can potentially have a dangerous influence on the way people think and behave especially on online platforms—where individuals are free to not only express their views but spread and encourage others to act on them.
“I had a running conversation with someone I don’t know on a social media page yesterday, and I normally don’t do that,” recounted Dr. Nathan Shrader, an associated professor of Government and Politics and director of American Studies. In recalling the exchange, Shrader discusses a common byproduct of modern social media expression and retaliation.
“Okay, the conversation goes like this: somebody who I didn’t know, on a page that I follow, was sharing blatantly inaccurate information. And I happen to say, look, ‘No offense intended, but we all have to be careful about what we share with others because we don’t want to spread it. I got attacked for being like an elitist or something for trying to tell them about like, follow news sources and credible sources,” he said.
But the individual in question who shared the information did in fact have a source, albeit one known for being infested with conspiracy theories and individuals who freely spread and discuss, such things as the Biden-Harris campaign logo secretly being a symbol of Maoist Chinese communism.
The site—known as Parler—is akin to social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, though the major difference is that there is no risk of being “deplatformed,” or flagged for what you say. This means you can express anything you want, whenever you want to, and without fear of having your account removed or being punished for whatever you post.
Needless to say, a website of this nature lends itself as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and the expression of extreme political views. It provides a space for far-right nationalists, white supremacists, and other hate groups. Even just a quick Google search confirms this, and a report from The Times published within the last two weeks goes into greater detail about the danger a site like Parler poses to the election.
Considering that studies have shown that millions of people get their information primarily through social media and indicates this information has an effect on their engagement, Shrader explains that he is much more worried about the aftermath of this election cycle than Election Day itself.
“What is America gonna look like the day after the results are coming in? And what I’m afraid of are these types of sources of misinformation have the potential to beat us into, you know, possibly armed conflict,” he said.
“And I think you could also see it as a form of like, voter suppression, because I think there’s a lot of ways that all these white supremacist sites and people who are engaging with them will, if they believe all this information so easily and so passionately, that passion may lead them to action later down the line when the results that they were hoping for don’t come to life. It’s very scary.”
While it may be pessimistic to see this as a worst case scenario, cases of voter suppression are happening even now.
The Department of Government and Politics, Millsaps Young Democrats, and the Mississippi Federation of College Republicans have already taken action to ensure that students are not only provided with election facts and candidates policies but have also engaged in the promotion of civility following the action, most notably through the meme released last week.
“We suggest that students and young people surround themselves with reliable, trustworthy sources,” Emma Cavagnaro of the Millsaps Young Democrats said in a statement.
Many political organizations across the Jackson area and broader Mississippi are taking charge to combat the serious threat posed by the spread of misinformation online, and they are and actively engaging with citizens to ensure they understand the power of their vote.
“The big problems with the rapid spread of disinformation and lies that can impact election outcomes has been coming from new media: Facebook and other engines that can magnify ridiculous claims by targeting people who might believe them,” said Lynn Evans. Evans is the state board chair of Common Cause Mississippi, a chapter of the watchdog group dedicated to holding the government accountable and ensuring that the voices of the citizens are heard.
“I believe that when people have enough good and truthful information about candidates, and there are good candidates running, that elections have better outcomes. However, elections will reflect where the population’s thinking is at that point. The long work of changing people’s minds doesn’t happen in one election cycle.
Evans believes that data and truth ultimately play a role in how people vote, and points out the impact of foreign meddling by Russian and China. She argues that has contributed to the spread of false narratives and conspiracies online—such as Pizzagate—located in a recent issue of the Clarion Ledger.
This is truer now more than ever as the pandemic has vastly changed the game. At this current time, more than 69 million Americans have casted their ballots through early and absentee voting, far exceeding the count for 2016 as a whole. Obviously, a large portion of the population has made up its mind.
“I’ve stopped calling it Election Day, November 3, because so many people have more options to vote early and absentee this time. I’ve been referring to November 3—just for the sake of not confusing people—I’ve even been calling it ‘the last possible day to vote,’” Shrader said.
“Let’s say your neighbor gets their ballot in the mail, they read something online, it’s some fictitious thing that they don’t know is fictitious, and that guides their vote. They fill out that ballot and mail it in. But then in a couple days, they learned that that was not accurate. Well, their vote’s in. Traditionally, if we were to go back a decade in American politics, Election Day is still the date 90% or more people are going to vote; that is not the case right now. So many votes already are being processed that there’s no time to correct things like that at this point.”
Needless to say, the next few days leading up to the election will be critical in determining the outcome. Every single person who can vote will have to make their voices heard if they truly care about the future of the country. The misinformation and fake news will make that difficult, but there are various resources provided both online and through the community that students can take advantage of now.
Additionally, coalitions like Election Protection–which Common Cause Mississippi is a part of—are actively working with civil and government agencies to enforce greater cyber security. The English hotline is managed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a national civil rights organization, and accepts complaints from individuals (866-OUR-VOTE).
Students are also encouraged to frequently check their email and keep up to date with the latest information from the Department of Government and Politics, the Mississippi Federation of College Republicans and Millsaps Young Democrats. There are also individuals like Andrew Devall, Fletcher Freeman, and Kyla Thurston—our Democracy Fellow, Chairman of the Mississippi Federation of College Republicans, and Mississippi Votes Fellow respectively. Millsaps Young Democrats provides info about the candidates on its social media pages, and distributes sample ballots. A few more key points to note:
- Mississippi is among a few states that requires ballots to be notarized, which can be found at the Business Office or the Event Services Department for free for Millsaps students.
- Students voting absentee are encouraged to get their ballots in by November 3, as that is the last possible day they can be counted.
- The West Street gate will be open on November 3rd for students to walk to their polling place.
- Millsaps’s polling is not the Jackson Fire Department down State Street. It is the Good Samaritan Center down on Millsaps Avenue.
- Students can check if they are registered to vote by either contacting Dr. Shrader or simply going to vote.org.
“It’s up to citizens in general, because the buck stops here with us at the end of the day. But we have to rely on our leaders’ right to be responsible—whether they’re the government or leaders in the news media–to be responsible about what they’re telling people is true,” said Shrader.
In short, vote. If you care about this country, if you care about your neighbor, if you care about the future–vote.