Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Tuesday Is Election Night, Be Careful What You Tweet

Depending on whom you ask — and, indeed, how much you even care — Tuesday night is going to be a long one.

If you buy the arguments of the prognosticators leaning on the latest national polls, such as this one from The Wall Street Journal and NBC News, the race will come down to the wire, with the results of several states in doubt probably until the wee hours of Wednesday morning.

That’s what we’ve come to expect in our elections since 2000, when, after all the states were tallied, Florida was so excruciatingly close that the election wasn’t fully decided until mid-December. The 2004 election was similarly close, coming down to a statistical razor’s edge of fewer than 120,000 votes in Ohio. While in 2008 the election was wrapped as networks called the race before midnight Eastern Time, all the expectations are that this year will be more like 2000.

As the sun sets across the nation and people gather in bars and private homes and other places to watch the results, the evening should go according to a fairly well-established script. As polls close in each time zone, professional media organizations, including the TV networks, newspapers and the rest, will be adhering to a strict embargo on releasing data gathered from exit polls. For example, the first wave should come at about 7 pm ET (4 pm PT), when polls begin to close in the eastern states. Another round of polls will close every half hour until 9 pm ET, and then will close hourly after that until 11 pm, with the last states, Alaska and Hawaii, set to close at 1 am on Wednesday. (You can read more about the poll closings and the nuances of media policies for calling the race in each state, in this interesting column from The Wall Street Journal’s Carl Bialik.)

During that four-hour window, there’s going to be a lot of nonsense spouted on Facebook and Twitter, which since 2008 have emerged as vital, though often incorrigible, parts of the national conversation. Some of what you may read there as the day wears on may be true, and some will be planted in order to discourage or encourage voters from one side or the other at a vulnerable moment, when polls are still open. Nearly all of it will be exaggerated, and some will be downright false.

It’s at moments like this when the urge to hit the “Retweet” or “Like” or “Share” button will be greatest, because of the sense of emotional urgency coupled with the perception that time is short.

During the recent outbreak of destructive weather in the Northeast, we saw a variant of this, and I even fell for it myself. In my Facebook stream, I shared that picture said to be of Hurricane Sandy that turned out to be a Photoshop combo of the Statue of Liberty and a pic of a supercell thunderstorm. Oopsie.

Another example — thankfully, I didn’t fall for this one — was the widely circulated picture of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C. Taken in September during a heavy rain, it was later said on Twitter to show elite soldiers standing guard during Sandy. Whoops again.

No one wants to be that person who gets a “Fake!” in their Twitter or Facebook streams. No one wants to be responsible for an errant tweet going viral — especially when it’s wrong.

So consider this a public service announcement. On Election Night, think before you retweet. Share and “Like” with caution. We’ll all know what’s really going on with the election results soon enough.

(Image is the iconic photo of President Truman, holding up the most famous incorrect newspaper headline in history.)

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