Editorial: Can voter misinformation be stopped?

This artwork is by Donna Grethen.

This artwork is by Donna Grethen.

Donna Grethen

On the 50th anniversary of the night operatives for President Richard Nixon broke into Democratic National Headquarters, it’s worth remembering they might have gotten away with it if not for Frank Wills.

Wills, the night watchman at the Watergate Office Building, noticed that several doors had been taped open and called police. America’s history was changed.

It remains a brazen example of interference with the election process, but Watergate’s modern legacy thrives. Not in a hushed building in the nation’s capital, but in the even darker corners of the internet.

Connecticut’s secretary of the state’s office is hiring its own watchman. A $2 million election security campaign will include a $150,000 salary for a cybersecurity expert to monitor mainstream websites as well as fringe platforms trying to plant lies like seeds.

“We need to get ahead of the curve and knock down bad information to protect people from misinformation that would get in their way of voting,” Connecticut Deputy Secretary of the State Scott Bates said.

Maybe you heard the one about the tractor-trailer that crashed and spilled ballots all over Interstate-95.

You did?

Yeah, that never happened.

A consultant working for the secretary of the state’s office had Twitter remove the post, but it’s never easy to put lies back in the bottle.

One of the challenges is that some people will never be dissuaded that fiction is not fact. The truth wasn’t enough to thwart Sandy Hook conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. It needed the resolve of Newtown parents.

But the folly lingers in the minds of far too many Americans that victory in the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. Trump has fueled the fire by claiming voter fraud in subsequent elections.

Debunking such myths is more than a full-time job, which is probably why Connecticut Secretary of the State Denise Merrill sought help. Whoever gets the gig will be playing whack-a-mole with countless platforms to stifle misleading static in advance of November’s midterm elections.

So when online rumors start about, say, about dead people voting, it will be up to the new hire to prevent it from going viral. The ultimate goal is to boost voters’ faith in the system.

That won’t be easy. Plenty of critics are already calling out the job as a case of overreach, a violation of free speech that is politically motivated. There is also the reality that officials must remain steadfast in being on the lookout for genuine election hi-jinks. Jury selection began just this week in the trials of state Sen. Dennis Bradley and former Board of Education member Jessica Martinez, Bridgeport officials accused of campaign finance fraud.

Other states are initiating similar efforts, which could turn election cybersecurity into a new career path. Such work demands transparency as well, lest it drift into censorship.

The biggest challenge will — as always — be that some people never stop clinging to a lie. When that 50th Watergate anniversary arrives June 17, there will surely be revived claims it was all just a conspiracy. Politics will always demand reliable watchmen.