Elections are the backbones of our country’s democracy. The choices we make during voting cycles can significantly impact the legislature. Perhaps most importantly, they have direct effects on the quality of people’s lives. As such, it is vital to make sure solid methods are in place to protect the integrity of the electoral process.
In recent years, this process has faced some significant challenges. The 2020 election, in particular, was awash with baseless claims of breaches in security and fraudulent behavior. The flow of misinformation was so strong that it resulted in an attack on the U.S. Capitol. Indeed, the result has been a widespread erosion of trust in our elections.
We’re going to take a closer look at the current state of election security, the legal actions involved, and how social media has an influence.
Technology is a positive element of our elections. Voting machines are designed to remove the potential for human error or corruption to disrupt the integrity and accuracy of the process. Technology also supports voter registration and public access to key election information.
However, the tools used in elections have also been the focus of concerns surrounding cybersecurity.
This worry isn’t entirely unfounded. The 2016 Russian cyberattacks on the U.S. presidential election prompted urgent security reviews. As a result of some improvements, the 2020 election was considered by many to be the most cyber secure in years. Nevertheless, there remains a sense that government-operated technology, particularly voting machines, cannot be trusted.
This has been a persistent argument against the legitimacy of the 2020 election results. Yet, it’s important to note just how stringent the legal teams and federal agencies have been in ensuring the integrity of voting technology. Since 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have collaborated closely to make election technology more resilient. As a result, despite claims to the contrary, there was no successful breach of election technology in 2020.
This doesn’t mean election technology is invulnerable. Technology is changing all the time, with advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) presenting cybersecurity challenges. There has been a request by Democratic and Independent senators for Joe Biden to dedicate $5 billion in grants toward improving election security. Unfortunately, this lacks Republican support. If the public is to regain trust in the integrity of elections, there must be consistent efforts to ensure the tech involved performs to high legal and security standards.
Social media engagement
Social media can be a powerful tool for elections. After all, any additional engagement in the electoral process from all demographics has to be considered a good thing. Interactive social media content can be effective in expanding the reach of important information and messaging. Live streams from candidates, call-to-action buttons, and polls can all influence the behavior of voters. Even previously apathetic demographics can find encouragement to mark their ballots.
However, we have also seen social media being used as a tool to distribute damaging forms of misinformation. Fake news has become a prevalent feature of social media. This has to be considered an issue of electoral security. After all, it impacts the integrity and the fairness of the democratic process. It is also a significant platform for foreign interference in domestic government. A 2020 report from the University of Wisconsin’s Brennan Center for Justice detailed how social media accounts with links to the Kremlin posted divisive content to influence voters.
Unfortunately, there is relatively little legislation to address this behavior. Spreading information designed to deceive voters in a way that prevents them from voting may fall under voter suppression legislation. But in most cases, the methods aren’t so blunt.
Rather, sharing fake news not specifically designed to suppress voters is largely protected under the first amendment. Not to mention that outsiders seeking to influence elections through the media don’t generally fall under U.S. jurisdiction. What makes this so challenging is it is an electoral integrity breach through legally legitimate means.
It can seem as though the spread of online misinformation is an insurmountable issue for election security. After all, a huge volume of divisive and false content is constantly being introduced and shared every day. Nevertheless, our society is not entirely powerless to act from a legal standpoint.
There is a misunderstanding that blocking social media accounts amounts to censorship. The first amendment only protects citizens from censorship from the government. Indeed, an attempt by Texas to pass legislation preventing the removal of misinformation posts failed. However, companies are understandably wary of acting in a way resembling unnecessary censorship. There are tools these companies can use to address the issue, though.
Twitter has been particularly active in fact-checking misinformation. When questionable content is found to contain false information, the company labels the post as containing potentially misleading information. This certainly doesn’t amount to censorship. Rather, it gives voters access to quality and credible information to provide context.
Unfortunately, at present, media businesses are not legally compelled to use these fact-checking services or other measures. Despite these platforms’ power, they are not required to meet the same due diligence responsibilities as traditional media. Facebook is particularly opposed to fact-checking political posts. While it’s important to tread carefully, without regulatory and legislative action, this problem is likely to continue and grow.
Stringent election security is essential to maintain the integrity of our democracy. Our relationship to the technology involved with the process, though, can be problematic. There need to be continued efforts by lawmakers and federal agencies to improve the cybersecurity of voting technology. However, perhaps the most prevalent threat continues to be misinformation via social media. Until we can establish methods to balance freedom of speech with the mitigation of falsehoods, the security of our elections will remain under threat.