[This article was originally published on Oct. 8, 2020. Just Security is republishing it on Nov. 3, 2020.]
The problem of disinformation in the run-up to the 2020 election is well covered in the news media. What hasn’t been as widely covered is the disinformation campaigns that will likely come right after Americans vote on Nov. 3.
Between now and then, many engaged citizens are well aware that an endless torrent of toxic material — from QAnon to the latest “cheapfake” from the Trump campaign — is being thrown at voters to shape their perceptions of the candidates and of the integrity of the election process. Indeed, even if tech companies have failed to do enough to stop the proliferation of false accounts and false information, there is still a much more developed social infrastructure for spotting disinformation campaigns. And since the events of 2016, more journalists are on the beat, regularly identifying and assessing the spread of lies and quackery.
The cycle of these various forensic efforts — uncovering a new offense and technology platforms reacting, in part or in whole — is now business as usual on today’s internet. Focus on any given day in any given news cycle and it is cacophony and chaos. How will this or that event trigger the cult-like Q folks’ depiction of reality? What is making the white supremacist message boards light up? Why are the Iranians so bad at this? But zoom out and it is all more or less of a sort. We’ve seen this stuff before. It doesn’t fascinate in quite the way it did in 2017. Following disinformation in the election these days feels more prosaic than it once did. Almost janitorial.
But perhaps it’s not the runup to the election we should be chiefly concerned about. In this cycle the election itself may not be the greatest point of leverage for manipulators. Indeed, the dynamics of this race are fairly stable. It appears President Donald Trump will not win the election outright — putting your time and effort to change that outcome is arguably a waste for any motivated actor. But the post-election period offers riches never imagined — a nonzero chance at subverting a democratic outcome, sure — but an even better chance to push more Americans to extremes than ever before. Like a coin-pusher game in a rundown convenience store — if you insert your quarter at just the right moment you can push quite the pile over the edge. Except here, it won’t be random luck but a more controllable environment.
On this premise, here are six disinformation threats to consider for the post-election period:
1. The news media fails to effectively handle the president’s lies about voter fraud and the integrity of the election.
For many months, Trump has been broadcasting his intention to question the result of the election. He refuses to say whether he will concede defeat. He has tried to lay the groundwork for local party officials to do his bidding, and he has put together a network of lawyers with pre-written legal pleadings to contest the election outcome. He has stated that he will “put down” post-election protests. His attorney general has repeatedly shown a willingness to enable all such efforts.
But perhaps the most dangerous possibility that lies ahead is the prospect that the American news media will simply not be up to the challenge of combating the lies. A new report from Yochai Benkler and colleagues at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University finds that the president has “perfected the art of harnessing mass media to disseminate and at times reinforce his disinformation campaign” about the integrity of the election. The authors recognize that to thwart this disinformation operation, editors and journalists must take special care not to “fall for the strategy the President has so skillfully used for the past six months.” This includes, for instance, being more aggressive in explicitly identifying when the president’s assertions are false, reminding audiences that Trump’s stated strategy relies on these false claims, not capitulating “to the inevitable charges of partisanship that will befall any journalists and editors who call the disinformation campaign by its name.” An unlikely example, perhaps, was provided recently by Fox News Radio’s Jon Decker, who confronted White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Trump’s claims that ballots were found discarded in a river.
Benkler, Schmidt, Faris et al: “Changes in the number of stories published online, tweets, and Facebook posts that mention mail-in voting or absentee balloting and fraud or election rigging, March 1, 2020 to August 31, 2020. Icons represent the precipitating event for each peak. Trump, using Twitter, press briefings, and television interviews, coordinated with the RNC and his own reelection campaign, drives almost all peaks in attention.”
“The American press is capable of absorbing the lessons of Yochai Benkler’s research team— eventually. But the time scale is way, way off. We need them to master these points by the end of the week, but the learning curve has often taken years to unfold,” New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen told me in an email. “You can’t ‘both sides’ it for a while, and then come ’round to the view that maybe there’s a propaganda campaign going on here. The bigger problem is political journalists seem to have trouble realizing how bad things are.”
2. Social media platforms fail to take urgent and effective action against false claims in the post-election period.
We know that Facebook, Twitter, and Google are considering what to do in various post-election scenarios. “If Donald Trump or indeed anybody else were to declare victory prematurely before the official results are certified, all users will see a very positive label on that post where that premature victory has been claimed making it quite clear to our users that the results have not yet been officially finalised,” said Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of global affairs and communications. Twitter put up a blog post in September stating it will remove “misleading claims about the results or outcome of a civic process which calls for or could lead to interference with the implementation of the results of the process, e.g. claiming victory before election results have been certified, inciting unlawful conduct to prevent a peaceful transfer of power or orderly succession.”
But how reliably will the platforms enforce these rules? And how quickly? In some instances, it has taken hours for a platform to take a decision on a particular post by the president even when it is in clear violation. And there is the issue of volume and capacity: Will the platforms be able to police millions of messages or stamp out duplications of messages that run afoul of these guidelines? And what of messages that do not make definitive claims but rather are framed as questions that nevertheless diminish trust in the result? It seems obvious that the platforms will not have highly effective tools to contain false claims in an emergency scenario.
“What we’ve seen from platforms is them putting forward plans, but what concerns a lot of the platform accountability community is enforcement,” says Erin Shields, national field organizer at MediaJustice, an organization that advocates for tech companies to do more about disinformation and hateful conduct. “That is the bottom line here, and confidence is pretty low.”
3. An army of Trump “election observers” produces a trove of false voter fraud “evidence” that obsesses the right for years
For many months, Trump has been encouraging his supporters to come out to the polls as “observers.” While the launch of a new website, “Army for Trump,” and comments from the president and his family have captured recent headlines, the recruitment effort has been underway since at least March. Many have focused on the very real possibility these observers will cause intimidation at the polls, and fears some may come armed. One thing we know for certain, however, is that they will be armed with smartphones. Indeed, the president has not directly urged his supporters to bring weapons to the polls, but he has urged them to spot cheating.
This is not a new tactic for the GOP. University of Maryland historian George Derek recently chronicled half a century of Republican myth building around voter fraud. Each election cycle creates a new opportunity to add to the canon. Trump campaign officials are training volunteers to collect viral submissions of “evidence” in short video clips, photographs, tweets and posts across the country. If Trump fails to win a clear victory, these items will no doubt be endlessly stitched together after the election and will serve as the basis for allegations of an illegitimate transfer of power.
“We have already seen cases where what people think of as evidence is picked up and reframed as a story of vulnerability or fraud, such as the recent case of pictures of ballots in a dumpster in Sonoma County. Someone sends the pictures to Gateway Pundit, then it gets to The Blaze. But it turns out the ballots were from 2018 and were disposed of according to proper protocols,” says Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington who studies disinformation and is a member of the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of research entities concerned with voter participation and the legitimacy of the election. “It would be wrong for any political party to gather up a bunch of material to support a false narrative.”
4. Militias invested in a narrative act on that narrative no matter what the result is at the polls
It is well reported at this point that white supremacists and other right-wing militant groups, from the Proud Boys to the Oath Keepers, regard Trump as an ally, and it is clear from the president’s statements that the feeling is mutual. An FBI threat assessment obtained by The Nation’s Ken Klippenstein predicts the Boogaloos, a far-right militia, will pose a heightened threat during “the current election period up to the 2021 inauguration as a ‘potential flashpoint.’”
While Trump’s fate is clearly of key concern to these groups, it’s not quite right to think of them as simply “standing by” waiting for his orders, no matter what the President might say. Many are ready to trigger action if so-called “evidence” emerges of election fraud that raises questions about a Trump defeat at the polls. (see point 3).
“Trump is clearly trying to incite violence; we saw him do similar incitement in 2018. You’ll remember there were three domestic terror incidents in the two weeks leading up to the election. Those were more or less lone wolves — in 2020 I’m afraid we’ll see more organized activity,” says Melissa Ryan, CEO of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that advises on disinformation and extremism. “But he’s doing this because he must think he’s going to lose, and he needs to create unrest to stay in power.”
5. Foreign adversaries that seem, in some respects, to be on the sidelines right now jump into the game
More sophisticated disinformation players who are more interested in sowing chaos and weakening the United States than in necessarily supporting a specific candidate may well regard the post-election period as the best time to make an investment. “Actors who are both sophisticated and malicious are likely to hold their fire until after the election to begin deploying their most potent tools,” note Clint Watts and Tim Hwang, both experts on online influence operations. Others concur. “Let’s say you are sitting on documents harmful to your non-preferred candidate,” hypothesized Alex Stamos, former Facebook chief security officer and head of the Stanford Internet Observatory. “If the polls predict they are likely to win no matter what, do you dump before and reduce your fearsome reputation or wait to create a scandal to hurt the new administration?”
We have more than just conjecture to go on. There is “evidence here that the Russians have prepared for this before,” Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, reminded me. Indeed the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia investigation confirmed that the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, had prepared a campaign in 2016 to call the outcome of an expected Hillary Clinton victory into question.
Watch this space — there is plenty of time yet for a compelling deepfake or a dump of hacked material. The Wikileaks release of hacked emails from Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta started on October 7, 2016, for instance. But there is reason to believe foreign adversaries will keep their powder dry until after the election.
6. We find out if the QAnon network has any gas left in the tank
For years, social network companies have been asleep at the wheel on the growth of the QAnon conspiracy theory. This summer, the network proved itself resilient in the face of social media company attempts at enforcement, and that it was still capable of mobilizing people to the streets. “They’ve hijacked the ‘Save Our Children’ movement, infiltrating it and putting their spin on it,” Daryl Johnson, a former terrorism analyst for the Department of Homeland Security, told the Kansas City Star ahead of one of hundreds of rallies organized across the country.
While it’s possible the “Save Our Children” rallies were evidence that the Q network has enough scale and redundancy to evade platform enforcement and rebuild, it seems more likely that just this week Facebook has dealt it a paralyzing blow, promising to totally remove the network’s accounts. We cannot know what choices the individual or set of individuals behind Q will make after November 3rd, but the reality is that it will be much harder for the network to propagate messages and coordinate activity.
“Remember that QAnon is just rebranded, supercharged Pizzagate. Pizzagate was banned by social networks after a man shot up Comet Pizza. Ten months later, QAnon was born with the same fundamentals, but with codes and puzzles,” tweeted NBC reporter Ben Collins after the Facebook announcement. “It’ll take a lot of work, and time, to rebrand again.”
The greatest point of leverage bad actors — foreign or domestic — will have is in exploiting the possibility that we might not know who the winner of the election is on the evening of November 3rd, and possibly for some days afterwards, as states cope with a much higher volume of mail-in ballots than in previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every state has its own rules for counting ballots — some do not begin before Election Day, and some not until polls close. Based on prior cycles, it is natural to assume most voters expect to have an officially certified winner of the presidential election within a couple of days after the election. A longer-than-expected wait may breed distrust in the result- at a week or more nerves will certainly fray. If there is not a clear winner within a week — by Nov. 10 for example — a vulnerable country could be plunged into a serious crisis of confidence. It’s hard to imagine an interregnum of more than a month, as happened in 2000.
U.S. security agencies — foreign and domestic — are clearly gearing up for these types of challenges. The heads of the FBI, NSA, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, and the National Counterintelligence and Security Center went so far as to release an explainer video on the national strategy to protect the integrity of the election with an “all of nation, unprecedented security effort.” Match that with anecdotal reports from clerks handling voting procedures across the country and it reinforces the sense that any effort to manipulate the vote result on a meaningful scale will be extremely difficult to perpetrate. Clearly, it is up to every politician, pundit, and platform to communicate that it may take time to count every vote, and that there is, as yet, no reason not to trust that doing so will result in a fair outcome.
This post-election period is certain to be a unique one — and the few weeks before the inauguration of the next president may well significantly determine the trajectory of the politics of this country for many years to come. Whether that trajectory will turn on disinformation and violence remains to be seen.