NEW PORT RICHEY — Once upon a time, other supervisors of elections around the state called Brian Corley “Mr. Twitter.” But that fairy tale is over now.
Corley, Pasco County Supervisor of Elections, is no longer a self-proclaimed “Twitter-holic.” He now sees the platform as “a circus” which cultivates bad information. He has sworn off all social media in hopes of providing his county’s voters a trustworthy and accurate election experience.
While the Facebook pages of other area elections supervisors are reminding people about vote-by-mail ballots, advertising for poll workers for upcoming elections and keeping running tallies of ballot requests, Corley’s site states there is just one place for real Pasco County election information.
“Effective immediately,’' the Facebook page announces, “our office will only publish voting/election info directly from pascovotes.gov/newsroom. This account will not be monitored. For assistance, call 800-851-8754 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or sign up to receive email alerts at pascovotes.gov.”
Corley said he came to the realization over time that social media was not helping the security and integrity of the election process. In the summer of 2016, he said he had no idea about “all things cyber-security” but that isn’t true anymore. After working with his state and federal partners including the Department of Homeland Security, he said he feels he is prepared for any physical or cyber threats.
But while the voting system has integrity, Corley said with social media messages there is “misinformation, disinformation, it happens and it’s undeniable.”
A June press release from his office repeats the findings of the special counsel report on interference in the 2016 cycle, in which Robert Mueller determined there were “multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election and that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
The goal, the report concluded, “was threefold: erode voter confidence, attempt to de-legitimize the winner, and polarize the American electorate. Amazingly, this was accomplished through fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, and by spending millions of dollars in advertising meant to influence users.”
The release noted, “In creating and using fake Facebook and Twitter accounts, these bad actors planted seeds of propaganda, untruths, and rhetoric that millions of American voters unknowingly perpetuated by “Re-tweeting,” “Sharing” or “Liking.”
Corley said he is not comfortable with the way that Facebook and Twitter have dealt with the accuracy concerns. He said he has heard nightmare stories from other places where social messages interfered with real voting information causing other election staffs to “run around putting out fires’' instead of running smooth elections.
Directing everyone to the supervisor’s web site, he said, eliminates that.
“What we gain from this is that I want to be able to control the message,” Corley said.
He already has his hands full in a county in election battleground Florida and with all kinds of other distractions. Corley also had to issue a media alert several days ago as his office has been hammered with calls from angry and confused voters being sent misleading information about vote-by-mail ballots. Some include bad spellings on names or were addressed to deceased family members. Others indicate that the voter might not already be signed up for a mail-in ballot, when in fact they are.
The flyers come from the Voter Participation Center and Center for Voter Information, two organizations that try to increase voter turn out with a focus on some groups with especially low turnout numbers.
Corley has confronted those organizations before, saying that they are spreading confusion at a time when voters are concerned about the the integrity and accuracy of the voting system.
Corley’s office had already reached out to all registered voters who don’t have a vote-by-mail request filed, just to cover his bases. Of this new batch of items from the outside organizations: “It’s redundant,” he said.
“At a time when voter confidence is at an all-time low, these organizations choose to turn a blind eye and become part of the problem instead of the solution,” he said in the media alert. ”My number one message to the voters of Pasco is that these mailings are in no way affiliated with my office. We already have reliable tools in place for Pasco voters to register, update their registration, check their status and request a vote-by-mail ballot.”
But this sort of confusion might be just the reason why a supervisor of elections would opt to use social media, said Scott Talan, an assistant professor of communications at American University with a specialty in public and strategic communications.
Eschewing social media is not a badge of courage, he said, but a rejection of an effective way of reaching the community about an important issue. With America’s voter turnout dismal when compared with other countries, a more balanced approach is needed, he said.
“Social media is so powerful and popular, and humans are social so it’s an easy and accessible way to get communications out,” Talan said. The better choice might be to use the social media to announce a new press release on an issue or a deadline or information voters need through a social media outlet and then use that to direct them to the supervisor’s web site, he said.
While a web site doesn’t pull people in, social media does, Talan explained. “Social media is more of a block party that spreads information among neighbors,” he said.
But Corley uses another quote that defines how he looks at the situation. It comes from Clint Watts, a national security analyst who testified before a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian cyber-warfare: “The internet brought us together, but social media tore us apart.‘'