According to a joint assessment by US intelligence agencies, the Russian state sponsored a disinformation campaign which brought the integrity of the last presidential election into disrepute. Has anything similar been identified in 2020?
Votes are still being counted in a number of key states and the margins for victory remain wafer-thin. It is in this period of uncertainty following the votes being cast that provocations could have the most damaging impact.
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Chris Krebs, the director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), has stated CISA will “remain vigilant for any attempts by foreign actors to target or disrupt the ongoing vote counting and final certification of results”.
He noted a report by Reuters which identified Twitter accounts falsely claiming to be part of the Associated Press, declaring election results before they were actually finalised – although the operators of those fake accounts are unknown at the moment.
“Twitter is acting quickly to remove the accounts,” Reuters reported, but there are challenging questions about whether the platform is responding quickly enough to misinformation being spread by a domestic, rather than foreign, source.
In the years following the last election, the platforms faced a barrage of allegations that their incompetence or apathy contributed to undermining the integrity of the electoral process by allowing disinformation to reach millions of voters.
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Hostile foreign actors, in particular those sponsored by the Russian state, were found to have flooded social media platforms with messages designed to amplify the divisions between Americans on a number of topics, especially discussions around race.
While this election doesn’t take place in a nation which has made peace on those topics, now the most prominent challenge to its integrity comes not from foreign actors, but the sitting president himself, and those amplifying those messages are his organic domestic supporters.
Twitter and Facebook have both taken action against unsubstantiated messages from Mr Trump alleging that the election is being stolen.
But Professor Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert at Syracuse University, told Associated Press that the actions by Twitter and Facebook were not proving effective at tackling this risk.
Groups of the president’s supporters – some armed with rifles and handguns – descended on election counting centres where mail-in ballots continue to be tallied up.
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In the states of Arizona and Michigan, mostly unmasked crowds chanted “stop the steal” following the president’s unsubstantiated claims that votes for him were deliberately not being counted.
Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg warned back in September of “an increased risk of civil unrest across the country” due to the anticipated delays in counting postal ballots.
Despite this, even after labelling a potentially false message by the president on Facebook, that platform does not obscure the message or prevent it from being shared without context.
This does happen when similar messages receive an action by Twitter, but the delay in applying those actions has still allowed those messages to spread.
It took more than 15 minutes for Twitter to obscure a Donald Trump message on Wednesday which claimed that election staff were “working hard” to make his lead in Pennsylvania “disappear”, during which time the claim – which is unsubstantiated and potentially intentionally false – had been spread.
“Twitter can’t really enforce policies if they don’t do it before it happens, in the case of the president,” Professor Grygiel said. “When a tweet hits the wire, essentially, it goes public. It already brings this full force of impact of market reaction.”