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Expansive, politically tough approach eyed to combat online election deceit

No fewer than 34 distinct but collaborative actions by governments, technology companies, candidates, the media and the education system are required to successfully combat digital deceptions and protect the integrity of the 2020 presidential election, a pair of non-profit groups argues.

The groups, MapLight and the Institute for the Future, say the United States was collectively slow to comprehend – and remains far behind in combatting – the pervasive influence on public opinion of political bots, troll farms, fake social media accounts, networks of disinformation websites and deceptive digital advertising. And technology companies and the campaigners themselves are not acting nearly aggressively enough to prevent the specious practices that made headlines in 2016 and 2018 from being repeated and magnified in the future.

But the sprawling roster of proposals in their new report, unveiled today, includes almost two dozen that would require bipartisan collaboration at a sharply divided Capitol or assertive actions by a Trump administration that has so far seemed disinterested in playing a strong regulatory hand in politics.

Legislation is needed to stiffen disclosure requirements for online political ads, force more donors to reveal their identities, and create a new government authority to investigate the true source of funding for digital political activity, for example. None of those bills has much of a chance in the current Congress, and the groups' proposed new federal regulations on data usage, consumer privacy and online antitrust are similarly a longshot.

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In addition, the more systemic changes the groups propose – such as making media literacy and civics more central to public education, and establishing more international cooperation in regulating online behavior – are many years away from fruition.

"Both the 2016 and 2018 elections have served as glaring reminders of the vulnerabilities in our democracy in the information age," said Ann Ravel , the co-author from MapLight and a member of the Federal Election Commission from 2013 to 2017. "We cannot respond to the challenges with paralysis and inaction. We must put in place protections now to safeguard our political process,"

"There's no magic-bullet policy that is going to automatically safeguard our elections and wind back the clock to the era before digital communication was a primary feature of political campaigning," said Samuel Woolley of the Institute for the Future. "We need our full society to be involved in responding to these problems."

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