Iowa mishap a gift to foreign foes

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Glitches in a mobile app used to report Iowa caucus results not only delayed the results but also provoked metastasizing misinformation about the integrity of the vote. Most of these conspiracy theories are home-grown, but they are likely to be amplified by Russian state-sponsored information operations, because a primary goal of their interference is to make democracy appear feckless and ineffective. In this environment, disentangling earnest, if cynical, speculation from foreign efforts to delegitimize our system of government may be nearly impossible. Welcome to the new normal, where the perception of insecurity can be nearly as damaging as insecurity itself.

Long before a single voter showed up to caucus on Monday, a Russian state-sponsored information operation claimed that the process was rigged. For months, Russia has sought to amplify divisions between Democratic candidates and among the electorate. It’s a play we should all be familiar with: We saw it during both the Democratic and Republican primaries in 2016.  

Moscow does not generally invent or manufacture these conflicts out of whole cloth. Rather, it prefers to opportunistically amplify and exacerbate existing fissures in a society. Incidents like the one in Iowa provide fodder for a fire that is already lit. Already Russian state-sponsored outlets cite multiple social media accounts alleging an establishment cover-up and quote individuals making wild claims. And we know that other countries are watching.

Not all, or even most, disinformation is imported from abroad. Prior to the Iowa Caucuses, domestic activists tweeted falsely that eight counties in Iowa had more registered voters than voting-aged residents. These false allegations garnered over 100,000 interactions on Twitter, and remained on the platform because they fell short of its policy against “misleading claims about voting procedures or techniques which could dissuade voters from participating in an election.”

The challenge social media companies face is real. Most have policies that prohibit outright voter suppression but have little to say about narratives that have the effect, if not intent, of lowering turnout. Removing content that promotes doubt in election results is not a viable approach, both because content moderation is a slippery slope, and because there are places around the world where allegations of outright vote-rigging are all too credible. That leaves labelling content as disputed or using algorithms to slow its spread. But when voters are already at their polling places, success in that endeavor depends on quick work by third party fact checkers practically in real time.

At present, the information environment constitutes a threat multiplier for the challenges election officials have long faced: Every glitch now constitutes potential peril to the legitimacy that voters ascribe to the outcome.

Voting machines, apps, election officials’ e-mail accounts, and voter registration databases are all susceptible — not just to intrusion, but to malfunction, which can diminish voter confidence even if the ultimate tally is accurate and free from manipulation. That’s why it is imperative that all of these systems have the highest degree of security.

The good news is that, in Iowa, caucus results can be verified by a paper ballot backup. It’s case in point for why we need a paper trail for every vote — not just in the general election, but in the primaries.

The New Hampshire primary is just days away.

Voters will go to the polls 60 times between now and Nov. 3, 2020. Before they do, state and local leaders should ensure that any new technology is adequately tested. They must also be completely transparent with the public about the nature of those tests and what they revealed.

Candidates for office and their campaigns need to reassure the public that they have confidence in the integrity of the vote.

This messaging to the American people is more important than ever, given the number of actors — foreign and domestic — trying to undermine the electoral process and shake our faith in our democracy.

Jessica Brandt (@jessbrandt) is head of research and policy at the Alliance for Securing Democracy and is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

David Salvo is the deputy director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy (@securedemocracy), a bipartisan transatlantic organization with the stated aim of countering efforts to undermine democratic institutions in the United States and Europe.

Tags 2020 election Democratic Party disinformation campaign foreign election meddling Iowa caucuses Social media Voter suppression

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