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How false information spread so quickly during "Sharpiegate" in 2020 election

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Posted at 9:44 AM, Jan 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-29 20:23:39-05

PHOENIX — You may remember the video. It went viral during the 2020 election after it was uploaded to social media. The claim: Ballots marked with a Sharpie marker were either not being counted or they were being miscounted.

"I was talking to Wolf Blitzer on CNN about Sharpies and I was like, this is really weird,” said Arizona's Secretary of State, Katie Hobbs. "I've been talking about markers all day, this isn't what I thought I'd be talking about the day after the presidential election. It's still so utterly crazy to me that this was a part of the conversation."

Hobbs remembers what's now considered "Sharpiegate" very well.

And the truth is, in the past, Sharpies were banned at voting centers because they could bleed through the paper. But in 2020, Maricopa County was using updated machines where Sharpies were actually the preferred pen since they dry so fast. But before election officials could even get ahead of the viral video, it was too late. Hobbs was suddenly on the defense.

This controversy is just one example of how fast misinformation can spread online. In this social media age, more and more people get their news from internet sources that aren't fact-based -- not understanding how to tell fact from fiction.

"Gathering information online versus offline has only increased, and obviously the benefit is there's a plethora of information out there," said Helen Lee Bouygues. "The disadvantage is it becomes more and more difficult for people to distinguish what comes from institutional sources, what are blogs, what are just opinions versus what are true investigative journalism."

Bouygues is a fake news expert with the Reboot Foundation. The organization studies misinformation and fake news and pushes for programs that promote critical thinking.

She says, while many Americans think they're good at determining what stories are false, most don't actually have the skills to identify fake news or use their fact-checking skills. Part of the problem? Algorithms on the internet.

"When you are on social media, they are clearly going to flag and tag points of view that are more similar to what you've liked before or interest groups that you are part of," said Bouygues.

So what can you do to become a more educated consumer of news?

"One is to avoid relying on a single source of information," said Bouygues. "Two, is resist clicking on initial links. Three is familiarizing yourself with common fake news tactics, like controlling anything that preys on your emotions. And the fourth is recognizing materials that are designed to persuade."

For Hobbs, the video isn't going viral anymore but the damage is still there.

"I think we're still dealing with the aftermath of Sharpiegate and much other misinformation that was spread post-election," said Hobbs.

Weeks ago, the Arizona Senate subpoenaed Maricopa County, demanding an audit of the 2020 presidential election results. The Senate asked for access to all the ballots and pushed for a recount, which is something Hobbs says isn't even legal or feasible for her team.

"The bottom line is, none of this should be necessary," said Hobbs. "It's become necessary because people, including elected officials, have spread this misinformation which has undermined people's trust and confidence in the system."

Maricopa County and the Senate came to a compromise.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted to approve an audit of the tabulation equipment. Two independent firms will perform the audit.

To date, no court or election official has found evidence of widespread fraud or an issue with Sharpies.