Experts sound the alarm on 2020 election-meddling


Will deception on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter be a major threat in the upcoming 2020 election? According to Ann Ravel, former chair of the Federal Elections Commission, the troubling answer is "Yes."

Ravel spoke about the looming problem at a June 27 event at Menlo Park's Hewlett Center titled "Digital Deception in the 2020 Election." Now the director of the Digital Deception Project at the Berkeley nonprofit MapLight, Ravel was joined by Katie Joseff, a digital intelligence researcher at the Palo Alto nonprofit Institute for the Future.

The two speakers discussed what they said were organized online deception campaigns, from both foreign and domestic sources, that significantly affected the outcome of the 2016 election.

"A lot of people are unwilling to admit that these campaigns impacted the election," Ravel said. "I'm here to tell you they did."

Similar campaigns targeting the 2020 election are already appearing, the speakers said.

Ravel and Joseff identified several forms of election-related online deception. One is the deliberate spread of misinformation — spreading incorrect details about polling times and locations. For instance, Ravel said, one campaign in 2016 targeted African-Americans, telling them that the voting date had changed.

"We know it suppressed the vote, because the difference between African-American voter turnout in 2012 and 2016 was almost 8%," she said.

Other tactics include the spread of "deep fakes," fabricated photos or videos that aim to create a false scandal, and the use of fake accounts, through which paid operatives spread politicized messages by masquerading as regular Americans. With today's AI technology, the speakers said, many of these are automated "bot" accounts, which can post independently and proliferate rapidly.

A major goal of these tactics, according to Joseff, is to undermine faith in democracy. The strategy of "disinformation" began in Soviet Russia as an attempt to "destabilize trust in democratic countries," she said.

Joseff also discussed another alarming tactic: harassment campaigns. In the 2016 election, hate groups and "troll farms" targeted specific demographics such as African-Americans and immigrants, and threatened them online, she said.

"Targeted harassment campaigns play a role in silencing already niche communities," Joseff said. This harassment, which sometimes involved death threats or sending law enforcement to the victim's home, led to a significant decrease in voting turnout among these populations, she added.

What is the solution?

Addressing the problem of online deception and harassment, the speakers say, will require action on two fronts.

The first, Ravel asserted, is to pass federal legislation requiring greater transparency online. While at the FEC, Ravel said, she argued for such a law, and was vilified by one of her colleagues, who called her the "Chinese Censorship Board." But, she noted, such a law is not without precedent. For political speech on radio, television, and in print, there are strict requirements for disclosing the identity of the groups and funding sources behind these messages.

"If you pay for political communications, you need to disclose who's behind it," Ravel said. Extending these requirements to the online realm only makes sense, she added.

The second is for social media companies themselves to take the initiative. Whether or not they are legally required to, Joseff and Ravel say, companies like Facebook should be making active efforts to detect fake and bot accounts, correct false information, and ensure that paid and political content is displayed transparently.

According to Brandi Barr, a policy communicator at Facebook, the social media giant is taking a number of steps in these areas.

Facebook has blocked millions of accounts, said Barr, both of individuals suspected to have a fake account and of groups of accounts displaying "coordinated inauthentic behavior." The company has also taken down 45,000 posts "attempting to mislead people about where and how to vote," employs third-party fact-checkers to identify false content, and keeps a public archive of the ads it displays and the sources and targets behind them, she said.

Since 2016, said Barr, Facebook's efforts have shifted from passive identification based on user reports to active detection of deceptive behavior using "a myriad of signals."

Governments are also turning their focus to this problem as a threat to the integrity of elections, says Jim Irizarry, assistant chief elections officer for San Mateo County. "We realized you don't have to get into the voting system if you can influence attitudes towards candidates and campaigns," he said.

Combating online deception on the government level requires a "multi-level approach," Irizarry said. San Mateo and other counties are working with the Cyber Security Division of the California Secretary of State's Office to report election-related misinformation on social media, he explained. Anyone who encounters misinformation can now report it to the secretary's office through a new online system at

On the local level, he said, San Mateo County is combating disinformation with strong voter education. "We're very aggressive in the area of voter education and outreach," Irizarry said. The county was not significantly impacted by disinformation and manipulation in 2016, he said, and he hopes continued outreach efforts will ensure the same for next year.

As a national issue, however, Ravel is not optimistic that the problem of online deception will be solved in time for the election. The reality is that repairing this situation will likely take many years, she said.

"I'm trying to sound the alarm that this is not an easy fix," Ravel said. "We need to get much more information about exactly who they are targeting and why."


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11 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 9, 2019 at 6:08 pm

Facebook should not be allowed to create such detailed and abusive dossiers on American citizens to begin with.

5 people like this
Posted by Vlad
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 9, 2019 at 6:17 pm

We Ruskies have had much medical difficulties the last two years, with our stomachs - much pain.

From laughing too hard.

Of course we'll do it again - we love the donnie, such a controllable fellow. He has done NOTHING to stop us. He still blames a 200 kilo man in a basement!

ohhhhhhhhh, my stomach again!

19 people like this
Posted by Sam
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 9, 2019 at 6:34 pm

Read the Mueller report.

Like this comment
Posted by Vlad
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 10, 2019 at 11:44 am

Samovitch, synochik, from your dedushka Vlad - no need to read that silly report.

In fact, we told donnie, our kotik (kitten) kompromat, to have his vassal Barr-bushka, restrict testimony from the Mueller deputies. No need to worry your little head about such things. Web Link

Go back to facebook and look for cute kittens and maybe some of our news reports. Everything will be fine! We will take care of your elections for you. No need to worry!

1 person likes this
Posted by Robert Edmand
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jul 11, 2019 at 1:13 am

I know the Russians are interfering in the election process much more now than they did in 2016. They are starting earlier and are more effective than they were in the past. How do I know this you ask? It’s very easy, they have somehow already convinced me and a few friends to vote for Trump. I never expected that would happen, in fact I’m sure it would not happen with out the Russians interference. It’s either that or I really am one of those deplorables who lack the brain power to make good decisions on my own and I’m easily convinced to do things totally against my will.

5 people like this
Posted by Give it a rest
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 11, 2019 at 7:11 am

Barack Obama, October 2016: "I’ve never seen in my lifetime or in modern political history any presidential candidate trying to discredit the election process before votes have even taken place. No serious person out there who would suggest somehow that you could even rig America’s elections."

CNN, October 2016, "Donald Trump on Wednesday refused to say he would accept the result of the presidential election if he loses to Hillary Clinton, raising the possibility of an extraordinary departure from principles that have underpinned American democracy for more than two centuries...Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who is leading Trump in most polls, said her competitor's remarks were 'horrifying' and accused him of taking refuge in the idea that any event that turns out against him -- even an Emmy award that goes to a rival -- is 'rigged.'"

Guess the narrative has changed when the result didn't turn out as expected.

5 people like this
Posted by Sam
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 11, 2019 at 8:17 am

Last two posters clearly have not read the Mueller report.

Not do they believe the American intelligence community.

Sad. Playing right into Putin's hands. We need American Patriots, not political hacks.

3 people like this
Posted by West Menlo
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jul 11, 2019 at 12:46 pm

And yet the Democrats, including Hillary, have never really accepted the election results from 2016. Interesting.

As for the comments from the Federal Election commissioner regarding so-called black-voter suppression between the 2012 and 2016 elections: could it have been maybe that there was no black candidate running for President in 2016 that "suppressed" their vote? Maybe just another way to look at the data.

And, BTW, wasn't Obama in charge of things in October 2016 when the so-called election-meddling happened? Just asking? So, if that was going on then, why wasn't he doing something to stop those pesky Russkies? Maybe because he thought his buddy Hillary was going to landslide into the White House? Lots of questions......!!

16 people like this
Posted by Sam
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 11, 2019 at 12:53 pm

The falsehoods are strong: ”yet the Democrats, including Hillary, have never really accepted the election results from 2016. Interesting."

Name ten Dems that refuse to accept the results. You can't, can you?

My turn: have you read the Mueller report or any IC assessments of the Russian attacks on the 2016 election?

Scared to read the report? Deflect, deflect, deflect.

5 people like this
Posted by West Menlo
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jul 11, 2019 at 4:45 pm

@SAM OK. Hillary, Pelosi, Schumer, Occasional-Cortex, Tlaib, Omar, Pressley, Harris, Warren, Swalwell, Moulton, Di Blasio,.... They refuse to accept his legitimacy as President and continue to call for impeachment as they never believed he had legitimacy to govern. I could go on from there if you need more examples----old dim-wit Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee...more?

Yes, I actually did read the Mueller report. No Russian collusion. Maybe Russia tried with two corrupt and leftist companies (Google and Facebook) to manipulate the election (under Obama's watch, and with a distinct company bias pro-Hillary) to influence things. How and why did they let that happen?

There was never any Russian collusion from the Trump camp. On the other hand, Hillary and her buddy Christopher Steele with known Russian ties, the very controversial Uranium One deal (given the green light by Hillary), Biden's son on the board of a Ukrainian company, Slick Willy taking speaking fees from Russian companies, including those backing Uranium One, while Hillary was Secretary of State-----well, there's where you might want to look for a bit of Russian collusion.

No deflections here. Maybe some accusations. No need to deflect when the Dems provide such a target-rich environment for hypocrisy.

2 people like this
Posted by Russian Trolls Abound
a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2019 at 5:07 pm

Oh my my -- yet *more* disinformation from the Russian troll factories.

But at least their English skills are getting better.

2 people like this
Posted by Sam
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 11, 2019 at 5:14 pm

Pelosi, Schumer, Occasional-Cortex, Tlaib, Omar, Pressley, Harris, Warren, Swalwell,

They all certified the election on January 6, 2017.

ON RECORD. With VOTES. Search C-SPAN for video proof.

Try again. So lame. So incredibly lame.

Like this comment
Posted by Vlad
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 12, 2019 at 9:55 am

Listen to Vlad, as I'm listed as Menlo Park other, a true americanski. And my paid friends who say "no collusion" a word that has no legal meaning.

Ignore the proof of ruskie interference in that silly Mueller report. Who needs proof where I come from? Not I, Vlad, a true Menlo Park other.

Dosvedanya my good fellow Menlo Park other friends who deflect to collusion!

2 people like this
Posted by West Menlo
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Jul 12, 2019 at 6:52 pm

@Vladski : so, then does collusion also have no legal meaning? If that's the case, then why did CNN, MSNBC, CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS (among others), Pelosi, Schumer, the Hildebeast, Schiff, dumb-as-a-brick Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee and others highlight it every day for roughly 700 days in a row? Inquiring minds want to know?

1 person likes this
Posted by Give it a rest
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 12, 2019 at 8:59 pm

Russia may have tried to interfere with the 2016 election. That is not the same thing as the winner (Pres. Trump) doing something wrong – even if he may have benefited from it. Mueller specifically said there was no evidence of collusion, and that would have been the wrongdoing.

From what I remember of Fall 2016, there was a lot of negative stuff coming out about Trump (e.g., the "grab them…" tape) and everyone thought he was going to lose. Therefore, I even have a hard time seeing how he benefited from whatever interference occurred, if any.

As I pointed out, the administration at the time (Pres. Obama) thought it was laughable anyone could interfere. If he was wrong, and was asleep at the wheel, he deserves most/all of the blame. That is, unless Pres. Trump conspired/colluded with Russia to make that happen. But as we know, the Mueller report said there was no evidence of that.

If you are a Democrat, and want to see Trump out of the White House in 2020, the best way to do that is to focus on the issues. Calling him a criminal who colluded with Russia, or his supporters racist, is not going to be an effective technique. I believe Biden (the candidate who would most appeal to the swing voters) knows this, but his own party is trying to destroy him right now since he's not left wing enough. In fact, one candidate also suggested even he's a racist.

2 people like this
Posted by Vlad
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 12, 2019 at 10:09 pm

My good friends above are so smart to not read that silly Mueller report!

Do not listen to the American intelligence community! Or the British, French, German, Australian, etc.

Thank you, comrades!

"Inquiring minds want to know?" NO! They do NOT! Do not read the report! You don't have the time. Just keep listening to fox!

Like this comment
Posted by Vlad
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 13, 2019 at 8:37 am

Vlad, from Menlo Park other, must head back to old country.

Remember - Mueller report is lies, with many examples of ruskie attacks, and muxh evidence of obstruction.

Be a good little foxhead and never read it or speak of it, and everything will be fine.

Never read it, Republican friendskis, always claim to read it and spread lies about it.

Don't make Uncle Vlad come back for you!

Dosvedanya, my good fellow anonymous (but not to me) Menlo Park other friends, who deflect to collusion!

Like this comment
Posted by Starman
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 13, 2019 at 11:25 am

Vlads peeps will never actually read the reports. Russian sympathizers.

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