Why Dearborn election misinformation texts alarm v...

Why Dearborn election misinformation texts alarm voting rights experts

The texts were designed to disrupt minority voters’ understanding of where and how to vote.

On the eve of Election Day, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel took to Twitter and Facebook to warn Dearborn voters that misinformation texts about ballot sensors were circulating in the neighborhood. 

“Do not fall for it, it’s a trick!” Nessel wrote on Monday evening. 

Ryan Jarvi, spokesperson for the AG’s office said they were alerted by the ACLU after it received reports that multiple people in the area had received this text message. 

“We were not able to confirm anything (the source, numbers, etc.) yesterday so we issued the alert,” Jarvi told Detour in an email. “Apparently it had been posted on Facebook but must have been deleted because we couldn’t find it.”

He added that it was unlikely the AG’s office would begin an investigation into the matter before Election Day ends. 

“Our primary focus at this stage is to let voters know when we’re aware of misinformation, and provide them with accurate information. We’d also encourage them to report any misinformation they see to officials by emailing misinformation@michigan.gov,” Jarvi said. 

The Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services or ACCESS, a Dearborn-based social services organization, first reported the message to the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline run by the Lawyer’s Committee.

According to the AG’s office, the fake message, which claims to be signed by the FBI while misspelling the word Bureau, reads:

“URGENT ALERT: Due to a typographical error, Scantron ballots being used for the 2020 Election has swapped sensors.  If you are intending on voting for Joe Biden, you must bubble in Trump and vice versa.  –Federal Berue [sic] of Investigation.”

Dearborn, part of Detroit’s metropolitan area, is home to one of the largest Muslim populations and the largest mosque in the U.S. The city has frequently been the target of right-wing Islamaphobic rhetoric. 

Rima Meroueh, director of the National Network for Arab American Communities and leader of ACCESS’ voter engagement and voter rights work, told Detour this message is only the latest in a slew of attempts to discourage Dearborn voters from participating in the elections. 

“We heard about the first messages probably a couple months ago and yesterday, we actually received a text message from people who said their parents had received this message, and that it was circulating in the community,” Meroueh said.

She added that over the past two months, misinformation campaigns have been especially targeting young voters of color in Dearborn through Whatsapp, social media and robocalls. 

“It wasn’t necessarily to get them to vote for one candidate or another, it was more to discourage them from certain candidates,” Meroueh said, adding that the anonymous messages would frequently slander candidates on the ballot with false outrageous claims about their criminal records.

Meroueh said such misinformation messages particularly impact Dearborn’s Arab American community as many already face challenges believing their vote matters. 

“People are already uncomfortable in not necessarily understanding the ballot, not understanding everything that’s at stake, and anything that’s going to add to that is going to throw them away from casting their ballot,” Meroueh said. 

Local Detroit journalist Serena Daniels, who is a fellow at First Draft, a not-for-profit dedicated to fighting misinformation and disinformation online, told Detour these messages amount to voter suppression.

“Anything that intentionally disrupts someone’s understanding of where and how to vote is an act of voter suppression,” Daniels said. 

Historically, communities of color, particularly Black Americans, have faced voter suppression, she pointed out, adding that this trend has now spread to Latinx and other immigrant communities where English may not be predominantly spoken. 

“So when you don’t have ballots available in other languages, or even just voter registration or voter guides in other languages, this harms communities of color. And then when you have concerted efforts that actively discourage people from going to the polls, that’s obviously an act of voter suppression,” Daniels said. “Looking at Dearborn, and its population, it does appear that this predominantly Arab American community is being targeted.”

There’s already distrust among some communities here who come from war torn or unstable countries, Meroueh said. “So for these communities to then hear things that say the system is not safe, that your vote doesn’t count and things like that — it becomes easier for them to believe these misinformation campaigns.”

Ahead of Election Day, off-price retail store Marshall’s boarded up its store windows in Westborn Mall here, raising concerns among residents about a potential for violence after the presidential elections. This prompted Dearborn police to assure citizens in a Facebook post that boarding up the store was a company-wide directive and there was no threat to safety. Some users however pointed out Marshall’s stores in other areas remained open. 

To build voter confidence among Arab Americans in Dearborn this election season, ACCESS has been working to dispel misinformation and educate voters on their rights and the ballot. 

There is fear mongering, Meroueh admitted, adding that she is confident it will not impact Dearborn residents too much. “We will continue to talk to the community to make sure people are making decisions based on the correct information. We can’t be swayed by a few misinformation campaigns,” she said.

The organization also helped recruit 70 poll workers and poll challengers from the community stationed at polling stations across Dearborn to reassure voters. 

“Understanding the strength of every person’s vote, including communities of color, is the reason we’re being targeted — and so we cannot let that get in our way,” Meroueh said.

“Because it’s not only about the issues on the ballot this election, it’s about Arab Americans understanding and participating in their civic duties. That’s our goal. We want them to feel like they are a part of what creates change.”

Come across any misinformation this election season? Report it to misinformation@michigan.gov

This story was produced with the help of tips reported through ProPublica’s Electionland project. If you experienced a problem voting, please let us know.

Alison Saldanha is a reporter and Elections SOS fellow with Detour Detroit.