Election 2020 – Keep Misinformation from Undermining the Vote

Election 2020 – Keep Misinformation from Undermining the Vote

On September 22nd, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) issued an advisory about the potential threat from foreign actors and cybercriminals attempting to spread false information. Their joint public service announcement makes a direct statement regarding how this could affect our election:

“Foreign actors and cybercriminals could create new websites, change existing websites, and create or share corresponding social media content to spread false information in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions.”

Their call to action is clear—critically evaluate the content you consume and to seek out reliable and verified information from trusted sources, such as state and local election officials. Not just leading up to Election Day, but during and after as well.

Here’s why: it’s estimated that roughly 75% of American voters will be eligible to vote by mail, potentially leading to some 80 million mail-in ballots being cast. That’s twice the number from the 2016 presidential election, which could prolong the normal certification process. Election results will likely take days, even weeks, to ensure every legally cast ballot is counted accurately so that the election results can ultimately get certified.

That extended stretch of time is where the concerns come in. Per the FBI and CISA:

“Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy.”

In short, bad actors may attempt to undermine people’s confidence in our election as the results come in.

Our moment to act as smart consumers, and sharers, of online news has never been more immediate.

Misinformation flies quicker, and farther, than the truth

Before we look at how we can combat the spread of false information this election, let’s see how it cascades across the internet.

It’s been found that false political news traveled deeper and more broadly, reached more people, and was more viral than any other category of false information, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study on the spread of true and false news online, which was published by Science in 2018.

Why’s that so? In a word: people. According to the research findings,

“We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information … Contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that false news spreads more than the truth because humans, not robots, are more likely to spread it.”

Thus, bad actors pick their topics, pumps false information about them into social media channels, and then lets people spread it by way of shares, retweets, and the like—thanks to “novel” and click-baity headlines for content people may not even read or watch, let alone fact check.

Done on a large scale, false information thus can hit millions of feeds, which is what the FBI and CISA is warning us about.

Five ways you can combat the spread of false information this election

The FBI and CISA recommend the following:

  1. Seek out information from trustworthy sources, such as state and local election officials; verify who produced the content; and consider their intent.
  2. Verify through multiple reliable sources any reports about problems in voting or election results and consider searching for other reliable sources before sharing such information via social media or other avenues.
  3. For information about final election results, rely on state and local government election officials.
  4. Report potential election crimes—such as disinformation about the manner, time, or place of voting—to the FBI.
  5. If appropriate, make use of in-platform tools offered by social media companies for reporting suspicious posts that appear to be spreading false or inconsistent information about election-related problems or results.

Stick to trustworthy sources

If there’s a common theme across our election blogs so far, it’s trustworthiness.

Knowing which sources are deserving of our trust and being able to spot the ones that are not takes effort—such as fact-checking from reputable sources like FactCheck.org, the Associated Press, and Reuters or researching the publisher of the content in question to review their credentials. Yet that effort it worthwhile, even necessary today. The resources listed in my recent blogs can help:

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