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Disinformation in 2020: new techniques, new worries

In recent days there's been some great coverage about how disinformation campaigns are evolving in 2020 and in what ways they represent an imminent threat to this year's U.S. election.

Our friends at the Alliance for Securing Democracy issued a report on new ways Russian actors are seeking to disrupt the American vote. Russia and its proxies are recruiting real, unwitting people in the U.S. to foment protests and discord, write report authors Jessica Brandt and Amber Frankland. With increasing frequency, the group says, Russia is targeting specific influencers, like journalists or activists, rather than relying on large troll farms.


The Russian campaign is attempting to "co-opt legitimate domestic voices within target societies for the purpose of disguising an operation as authentic advocacy," the report says.

The New York Times published this guide to four particular disinformation themes being spread on social media, both on the right and the left. They include campaigns to block access to vote drop boxes, that the Covid-19 pandemic is a scam to suppress the vote, that there's a coup being led by Democrats and that Election Day will mark the beginning of a civil war. The Times also did a thorough run-down on how right-wing commentator Dan Bongino, worked the false conspiracy theory about a coup being planned against President Trump.

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Finally, over at Roll Call, this piece shows how it hasn't just been Trump spreading exaggerated rumors about voter fraud. The Republican Party has followed the president's cues and with its own campaign to push the message over six months. And that's having an effect: over half of Republican voters now agree that the increase in mail-in voting this year is a major concern.

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The election went remarkably well. Here's how to make the next one even better.
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The election went remarkably well. Here's how to make the next one even better.

We haven't yet seen evidence that would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election — even with the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic, the threat of foreign interference, civil unrest and greater turnout than any time since 1900. That counts as a resounding success.

Once the final tallies are certified, we need to thank the election administrators and poll workers whose heroic efforts preserved American democracy. After that, we need to assess what worked best and what needs to improve, so we can identify achievable steps to make future elections even more secure.

Based on what we know so far, here are five things that should be on the U.S. elections to-do list:

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USA map with flags
FotografiaBasica/Getty Images

Distorted U.S. democracy underscores urgency of Electoral College reform

On Dec. 14, the Electoral College will cast its votes. Barring any unforeseen outrage, a majority will vote for Joe Biden, the popular vote winner in the general election, to sighs of relief. Many may conclude the creaky Electoral College works most of the time, and that any fixes are just too hard to worry about.

That would be a mistake.

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Georgia voting stickers
Stop the presses, says appeals court, even if that means longer Georgia voting lines
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

The three steps to ensure a well-run runoff in Georgia

Hold the champagne: The 2020 Election Season isn't over just yet. Neither of Georgia's Senate races resulted in a victor on Election Day, sending both contests to January runoffs that will likely determine control of the U.S. Senate. And while many folks are understandably focused on the political repercussions of these races, I'm pulling for a different candidate: democracy.

While Georgia will likely conduct a risk-limiting audit and recount of the presidential election later this month, the state appears to have done a good job administering the 2020 presidential election. As a former election administrator and expert on the integrity of elections, my assessment is there is no reason to question the integrity of the election outcome. If any concrete evidence suggesting that wrongful disenfranchisement has or will affect the accuracy of the outcome, that assessment could change. Right now, there isn't.

Regardless, these are three steps Georgia officials could take now to ensure the integrity of the state's runoff elections in January:

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Even if it's not official, Republicans should acknowledge Biden's win

Even if it's not official, Republicans should acknowledge Biden's win

The nation has a new president-elect, Joe Biden. At the same time, there is no official president-elect, because the electoral process itself hasn't yet reached that point.

How can both these assertions be true? And if they are, how are Americans supposed to understand that? Most importantly, how can Americans of opposite parties get on the same page, so that we can move forward together as one country, as our new president-elect in his impressive victory speech is urging us to do?

When it comes to ending elections, there are actually two different processes at work, and they operate on different timelines.

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What's next for U.S. democracy after the president's stress test?
Jay Cross/Flickr

What's next for U.S. democracy after the president's stress test?

In another assessment of the 2020 vote so far, Election Dissection sat down with Laura Williamson, who works on voting rights and democracy at Demos. We spoke about President Trump's election night remarks as a stress test for the United States. Williamson had plenty to say about the state of the elections and some things that need fixing after the votes are finally counted.

What was your reaction to the president?

The president's remarks and actions are a test of our ability to show up, as a people, to mass mobilize and resist his authoritarian calls to end the counting. The basis of our democracy is that we pick our leaders. It's not the president or the courts that choose. So it's a test of our ability as a people to resist what is so clearly an anti-democratic attack.

And Americans are rising to the test. We're seeing masses of people calling for every vote to be counted. They're showing up and exercising their political power. We flexed our political power one way, by voting before or on Election Day. Now we're exercising it again in a different way — showing up in the streets and demanding every eligible vote is counted.

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