DES MOINES — Reports of Iowa precinct chairs struggling to make use of an app designed to assist tally participation within the Democratic presidential caucuses on Monday fueled conspiracy theories on social media and raised questions on how easily the high-stakes nominating contest would unfold.
Just hours earlier than the start of the competition, the primary of the 2020 elections, the headquarters of the Iowa Democratic Party obtained a number of calls from precinct chairs across the state reporting issues with the brand new app the social gathering is utilizing to calculate, tabulate and report outcomes for the caucuses.
The state social gathering mentioned practically all the calls had been associated to user-error issues, resembling precincts in areas with dangerous cellphone service having issues downloading or logging into the app, or others merely asking in regards to the app’s performance. Though the problems might presumably trigger outcomes to be delayed, the social gathering mentioned that it might not finally have an effect on the reporting of outcomes.
Sean Bagniewski, the Democratic Party chairman in Polk County, essentially the most populous county in Iowa, mentioned that solely 20 p.c of his 177 chairs might get into the app, however he added that there have been “no malfunctions.”
“We’re telling everyone to phone it in,” Mr. Bagniewski mentioned, referring to the hotline the social gathering has used for many years to report outcomes.
Yet these points appeared to set off hypothesis on Twitter, Facebook and different social media platforms that the app had been hacked, or that it was malfunctioning in a method that may profit a sure candidate.
“One of the risks of introducing apps like this, and new technology more generally, into elections, is that problems occur, as they inevitably do,” mentioned Matt Blaze, a professor of pc science and regulation at Georgetown University who research election safety. He added that whereas the issues may very well be malicious or simply technical glitches, they added gasoline to hypothesis that elections weren’t safe. “People might see this as evidence that the whole system is rigged and not vote at all. And that is the most tragic outcome.”
The speedy escalation of rumors and confusion throughout social media represents an early take a look at for a Democratic Party nonetheless grappling with the results of disinformation in elections because the social gathering enters a important stage of the 2020 main race. Though the Democratic National Committee has devoted assets and has employed outdoors consultants to assist fight disinformation forward of the 2020 election, a number of latest elections, together with the Kentucky governor’s race in November, have been focused by malicious campaigns.
Before the Iowa caucuses, officers on the D.N.C. and outdoors consultants each cited disinformation as the best risk to the safety of the caucuses. In the months main as much as caucus day, the D.N.C. held biweekly trainings and periods with state officers on combating disinformation. This week, the nationwide social gathering despatched a number of safety officers to Iowa to observe the risk.
On Monday, state social gathering officers emphasised that there could be no delays with outcomes due to reported issues with the app.
“The I.D.P. is working with any precinct chairs who want to use the optional tabulation application to make sure they are comfortable with it,” Mandy McClure, the communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party, mentioned in an announcement. “We’ve always been aware that many precinct chairs prefer to call in results via a secure hotline, and have systems in place so they can do so.”
Though a cellular app was used within the 2016 caucuses, the state social gathering selected a brand new vendor and app for 2020 to submit outcomes electronically. For months, the social gathering has been holding in-person coaching periods across the state to assist precinct chairs get snug with the app.
But the Iowa Democratic Party, figuring out that a few of its precinct chairs have been working caucus places for years based mostly on a pen-and-paper system, saved open different traces for reporting, together with the identical phone-based hotline that has been used for years. The social gathering additionally launched a brand new choice card system for the caucuses that may create a tough paper path.
The new app was designed to enhance the velocity and effectivity of reporting election outcomes, and was examined by regulation enforcement and safety officers. But particulars of the app, together with the kind of safety it makes use of, its primary construction and even its title, had been a intently held secret by Democratic officers, resulting in rumors and confusion over how, precisely, the app functioned.
“The idea of keeping an app — particularly one that is going to be used by thousands of people at a public event — secret is really a fool’s errand,” Mr. Blaze mentioned.
Serious attackers, Mr. Blaze mentioned, would haven’t any bother discovering or figuring out an app that had been deployed to so giant a bunch. Secrecy, he added, solely prevented cybersecurity consultants and outdoors events who might assist Democratic officers by scrutinizing the app and providing steering on how you can safe it.
Doubts over the app on social media started to floor final week, when information experiences revealed that the app had been shared with precincts throughout Iowa. With little different data to go on, some candidates’ supporters started circulating rumors on Twitter, Facebook and different social media platforms falsely claiming that the app was a ruse to permit the Democratic Party to secretly enhance its candidate of alternative.
Tweets claiming that outcomes from sure districts, or for sure candidates, could be erased from the app had been shortly shared, regardless of being debunked.
Democratic officers have struggled to include different viral claims of voter fraud within the Iowa caucuses.
A extensively disputed tweet and video by the nonprofit conservative group Judicial Watch claimed that eight Iowa counties had extra caucusgoers registered to vote than precise caucusgoers of their districts. The tweet and video had been dismissed by Paul Pate, the Iowa secretary of state, who posted a hyperlink to the county-by-county voter registration information.
“They are updated monthly and available online for everyone to see,” he wrote on Twitter.
Facebook mentioned it might not take away the video, however referred it to reality checkers. Neither Twitter nor YouTube responded to a request for remark, however as of Monday night the video was accessible on all three social media platforms and had been considered tens of 1000’s of instances.
Social media corporations have largely taken the place that they may solely take away content material that tries to suppress voters, resembling by giving a false date or location for voting.
On the bottom in Iowa, state social gathering officers had been utilizing Twitter and different social channels to name consideration to potential disinformation and to ask the general public for assist in figuring out it.
“Reminder to folks on caucus day: if you see ANY misleading information, we want to know about it,” Kevin Geiken, the manager director of the Iowa Democratic Party, wrote on Twitter. “Email [email protected] or reply to this thread and we’ll investigate ASAP!”
Nick Corasaniti reported from Des Moines, and Sheera Frenkel from San Francisco.