In March 2019, the U.S. Justice Department released an extensive report on the election interference that had taken place in 2016. The report detailed the organized and well-planned interference by Russia’s government and its military intelligence (known as GRU) in the U.S. 2016 election. While the Justice Department’s report did not find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of the Trump campaign, it did state that there were serious breaches of protocol between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. However, the threat in 2020 is even greater than the one in 2016. Experts believe that Russia is gearing up again to interfere in our elections, having had success four years ago. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessarily on behalf of a specific candidate: Russia is more interested in simply sowing discord and division among Americans in order to weaken our global power. Knowing this, it’s important for citizens and lawmakers alike to be honest and knowledgeable about the potential for Russian interference. Keep reading for a breakdown of the ways in which we’re prepared and unprepared for this threat in 2020.
Some social media and tech companies are changing their platforms
Under pressure from citizens demanding better transparency, companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been forced to modify aspects of their advertising policies and user interfaces. For example, Twitter recently banned all political ads from the platform, and Google has increased transparency on the people or groups behind the political ads it runs, as well as prohibiting demonstrably false information and “deep fakes.” However, Facebook--patient zero for the spread of fake news in 2016--has angered nearly everyone, including its own employees, by refusing to ban false political advertising from its platform. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims it’s to protect freedom of speech, but his refusal to make sweeping changes to Facebook’s ad policies and controversy-focused algorithm is a serious blow to pro-democracy forces.
Election security has been politicized
Republicans in Congress are showing little concern about the potential for election interference in 2020 and beyond, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to allow legislation that would protect election security to be heard on the Senate floor. Measures such as increasing the budgets of state election administrators to overhaul vulnerable election systems, mandating that campaigns report offers of help from foreign governments and individuals, and banning Internet-connected voting machines have continued to die before reaching the Senate floor. There’s something simple we can all do--vote in 2020 for leaders who care about America’s elections enough to be proactive about it. In the meantime, call your legislators and remind them that this is an important issue to their constituents and that their votes on election security issues will be remembered at their next election.
Americans’ media literacy needs to improve
One of the reasons the 2016 interference campaign was so successful was because Americans have a combined low level of trust in traditional media and a low level of media literacy. One analysis by Buzzfeed News showed that Americans shared fake news more than real news from 19 major news outlets in 2016. While it may seem strange for Gen Z college students who grew up on the Internet, it can be difficult for older Americans to differentiate legitimate news sources from cleverly designed fake news. Social media sites can implement measures such as clearly flagging fake news on their platforms and offering a grade for a news source’s credibility (higher grades for legitimate sources like the New York Times or Washington Post and low grades for sites like TruthEagle.Net or Breitbart News). However, we can help too--talk to older family members about spotting fake or biased news and help stop the algorithmic spread of fake information by not interacting with those posts online.
Voter rolls themselves could be vulnerable
In 2016, federal officials noted that Russia successfully hacked into the voter systems of seven states after targeting 21 states. Hacking into voter registration rolls is an easier option than actually hacking into the fragmented and complex voting machines. Voter rolls contain the information and voter registrations of every voter in a specific state, and deleting the names of certain voters could make it easy to swing an election one way or another. While there was no evidence of Russia actually making changes to the voter rolls four years ago, it’s possible that in 2020, they’ll succeed at this. You can combat this first by voting for a state secretary of state (the person in charge of administering elections) who will focus on election security and protecting voting rights. Then, register to vote and check your voter registration every few weeks to ensure everything is updated and correct.
Election interference is a serious threat, and we should be clear-eyed and honest about the extent to which it could create chaos in the 2020 election. There are things we can all do to stay informed and protect the essence of our democracy, but the only true antidote is structural change, legislation, and for people to actually show up to the polls and vote.