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What the Midterms Revealed About the Future of Misinformation

Election-related disinformation built on strategies tested in 2020, and its believers remain a strong community, those watching the space say. Though voters rejected many election denier candidates, there is still cause for concern.

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The high-stakes midterm elections saw many voters push back against election conspiracy theories, often preferring candidates who uphold the 2020 election results.

Now experts are analyzing the narratives that emerged around the midterms, to understand how the misinformation and disinformation ecosystem is evolving and what the fight for truth might look like around the 2024 election.

“The American voter stood up [against election deniers] and said, ‘We’re done, at least for now,’” said Chris Krebs, former CISA director and current founding partner of the Krebs Stamos Group, during the Aspen Institute Cyber Summit this week. Krebs was famously fired after contesting then-President Trump’s unfounded claims of 2020 voter fraud.

Plus, emerging policies in the European Union could see social media platforms operate with more transparency and oversight in two years’ time, said Rik Ferguson, vice president of Security Intelligence at cybersecurity firm Forescout, during the summit.

Still, politicians and election officials need to remain vigilant about communicating with the public and dispelling falsehoods. Election-related disinformation and misinformation are not going away, and their proponents remain an active group.

The midterms avoided a repeat of 2020 election deniers’ efforts to mobilize to overturn the outcome. In part this was because the disinformation and misinformation ecosystem lacked a high-profile authority figure to rally believers, said Yasmin Green, CEO of Google’s Jigsaw, a unit focused on addressing violent extremism, harmful misinformation and other “threats to open societies.”

“But you definitely have this the mobilization capacity that's built up,” Green said. “If there were somebody at the pinnacle who were able to command that base to take action, it’s certainly there.”

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE MIDTERMS?


Midterms election processes ran safely and securely, Krebs said, although they were not free of false narratives.

Defeated Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake has notably refused to accept election results after one county encountered printing issues. The issues impacted a minority of ballots, and voters could proceed with casting their ballots in other ways. Per The Hill, county election officials said all voters were given opportunities to vote, and a state judge found no evidence to the contrary.

Minor glitches are unavoidable in any operation using hardware or software, which is why elections processes do not hinge on any single technology but instead have, for example, multiple ways to cast ballots, Krebs noted. But election denialists quickly spun the printing mishap into a story of an attempt to skew the election.
Chris Krebs, seated
Former CISA director Chris Krebs discusses election-related false narratives during the Aspen Institute Cyber Summit.
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These kinds of stories show a refinement of messaging strategies developed in 2020.

“With 2020, there was an element of A/B testing on the narratives that were working,” Krebs said. “… It was a lot of foreign interference in the beginning, with Italian spy satellites, Spanish server farms, Chinese coming in through the thermostat. But technically, that's kind of hard to grasp and grok … so it was never really going to get that traction on news outlets.”

This pivoted instead into claims of domestic — not foreign — fraud efforts, tapping into “tribalist” sentiment to paint the Democratic Party as perpetrators, Krebs said. The midterms homed in on those themes.

But there were some notable changes, said Ferguson. Unfounded narratives in 2020 pushed the idea that election fraud was a new phenomenon and residents could act to stop it. But 2022 narratives treated election theft attempts as a guarantee.

“It’s become a foundational belief that underlies any of the either deliberate disinformation or the received misinformation around election activities in the U.S.,” Ferguson said. The idea is that, “we don’t have to prove that to you anymore. What we have to do is tee you up to take action based on this belief we’ve already instilled in you. To me, that’s actually potentially more dangerous, because it means the groundwork is laid.”

Election denialism is tenacious, in part because believers find a strong sense of community and identity in it and because there’s profit to be made in pushing such claims, Green said. Jigsaw researchers have attended “true believer” conventions, and find they create social community and bring together adherents to a broad array of fringe ideas, from election denialism to discredited medical theories.

“This is a community that is there now for social connection, for capital-T ‘truth’, and they are not going away,” Green said.

The variety of merchandise for sale is one testimony to the financial motivation in perpetuating such unfounded claims.

“They all have their own angle on the disinformation that they are peddling,” Green said. “… There was a ton of medical cures for sale, merch … T-shirts, banners, also coins made for protection against 5G and just anything you can imagine selling.”

THE PLATFORMS


Online content moderation policies while not “fully effective” are having impact, Green said. Election deniers report seeing their posts removed and leaving mainstream platforms to alternative ones with weaker policies such as Parler and Truth Social.

The social media environment may undergo a greater change ahead of the 2024 elections: the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) is expected to be in affect for larger platforms during 2023 and smaller ones by mid-Feb. 2024, per TechCrunch. The act aims to foster more safety and trust online. It requires larger platforms to follow more rules around algorithmic transparency and risk assessments and puts them under centralized oversight from the European Commission.

The DSA also would see these social media networks collaborate on identifying and tackling systemic risk that impacts all of them, Ferguson said.

While this is an EU policy, Ferguson said it could impact how major platforms operate worldwide, because they may wish to avoid handling separate policies to users in the EU and users in other regions.
Yasmin Green, seated, gestures with both hands
Jigsaw CEO Yasmin Green talks during a panel of election misinformation at the Aspen Institute Cyber Summit.

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PUSHING BACK


Officials can also take action against mis- and disinformation. One key strategy is to pre-bunk, or prepare residents in advance to distinguish fact from fiction.

Such an approach involves three steps, Green said: warning people that there will be attempts to manipulate them; explaining what kinds of false narratives they’re likely to encounter; and explaining why those claims are false.

Mis- and disinformation tend to adhere to similar tropes, meaning that officials can guess what kinds of claims are likely to crop up around a particular topic or event. For example, violent white supremacists groups — despite their differences — all tend to draw on pseudoscience about race, Green said.

“The question is, how do you get ahead of a narrative that hasn’t happened yet?” Green said. “It's the predictability of the misinformation that can be its undoing.”

Going into 2024, strong communication remains key.

Political leadership needs to call out falsehoods and it will be essential to help elections officials continue to communicate with the public around how elections work, Krebs said. And while fact vs. fiction sites — like CISA’s Rumor Control — won’t reach entrenched election deniers, they can sway those who are undecided. Introducing civics into K-12 education could also better prepare the next generation, he said.
Jule Pattison-Gordon is a staff writer for Government Technology. She previously wrote for PYMNTS and The Bay State Banner, and holds a B.A. in creative writing from Carnegie Mellon. She’s based outside Boston.