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Disinformation Campaigns Are Suppressing Votes, Report Finds

A new report from the Brennan Center explores how online disinformation has become a tool of voter suppression and what government and voting rights advocates can do to defend the election process.

the word disinformation highlighted in the dictionary
Shutterstock/Casimiro PT
Voter suppression can take many forms. It can involve official policies adopted by jurisdictions (such as gerrymandering, voter roll purges, and overly complex ID requirements), or it can involve unofficial "dirty tricks," frequently perpetrated by party insiders, that seek to manipulate certain voter blocs into not casting their ballots.

A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice shows how online disinformation is both changing and adding to this latter problem.

As one might imagine, social media allows said "dirty tricks" to occur on a much broader scale than in the past. And while previous decades saw mostly domestic individuals and groups engaged in suppressive activities, there now exists the reality of foreign involvement, too, says the report's author, Ian Vandewalker.  

"In 2016 we saw a lot of activity from the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm in Russia with connections to the Kremlin," said Vandewalker. "They're still active, they are still trying to interfere in U.S. elections, and we've seen a lot of copy-cat activity from nations like China and Iran."

Indeed, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on the 2016 presidential election showed how a network of Russia-linked actors used everything from bot networks on Twitter and Facebook, to Reddit threads and blogs to suppress the vote in certain communities. Recent reports have shown how other U.S. adversaries took notes on this process

"At the same time, you also have domestic political actors here in the U.S. who, for their own partisan reasons, are trying to trick people out of voting because they think those people are going to vote for the other side," said Vandewalker.

A lot of this disinformation aims to mislead people about the voting process. Deceptive practices like campaigns encouraging people to "vote by text," circulation of incorrect information about when and where to vote, or making the voting process seem more arduous than it really is, are all common. At the same time, other disinformation takes a decidedly more psychological approach, often attempting to split certain voter blocs or dissuade them from turning out at all. 

With all this in mind, the best thing that governments can do to combat such campaigns is be prepared. The report outlines five potential strategies that governments can prioritize. These include:

  • Developing plans to promote official sources of information and data. Establishing credible sources of information within communities is critical, said Vandewalker, because it draws a hard line between what's authoritative and what isn't. Governments should "designate and publicize" several sources of official information well before election day. 

  • Protecting official websites from cyberattacks and hackers. One way bad actors have been able to sow doubt in communities is by hacking into official websites and posting incorrect information. They also routinely set up "spoofed" lookalike websites that mimic official sites. Among other things, governments should invest in .gov websites, says the report, as they are much more resilient against spoofing and have better security controls.  

  • Creating response plans to correct disinformation. Governments should draw up procedures ahead of time for dealing with incorrect information that circulates locally. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) provides standardized incident response plans in this area, as does the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. 

  • Developing disinformation monitoring solutions. An assortment of social media monitoring and analysis firms exist whose services can make localized disinformation campaigns easier to spot. Communities should be investing in these kinds of tools--which are typically pretty affordable, said Vandewalker. 

  • Building relationships with media organizations to better facilitate public outreach. Establishing relationships with local media organizations also helps facilitate outreach, as "local and ethnic media that serve frequently targeted communities are key partners in disseminating correct information in response to deceptive practices," the report says. 

The report also suggests supporting the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, a bill introduced last year by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, D-Md., that seeks to create new penalties for disinformation-based voter intimidation. It would also extend new responsibilities to the Department of Justice to help states fight disinformation. 

"We've seen this [disinformation] trend growing over the years--particularly targeted at minority communities," said a member of Cardin's staff via phone. "Our hope is that by putting these kinds of strong penalties in place we could discourage people from engaging in these types of activities," he said, while noting that the bill stalled in the Senate last year. 

Ultimately "there's no silver bullet" when it comes to fighting disinformation, said Vandewalker, explaining that everybody has a role to play.

"I think people, especially in the United States, need to be better educated about how to receive media, how to learn things through social media, what to trust and what to question," he said. "And the platforms also clearly have a responsibility to get junk out of there, especially things that are potentially criminal. And of course government has a responsibility to also be proactively informing people of true information." 

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.