The United States of America is well into its 2020 election season. Social media platforms, and other online services, are taking notice. Given the misuse of social media and other platforms in past contests, there is little wonder that there is some very real pressure on these platforms to establish policy and security measures to prevent these behaviors this time around.
Here, we’ll take a neutral look at the situation, and explain the initiatives that online platforms are now enacting.
Why This is a Concern
Here’s the issue in a nutshell… Let’s say that you’re a reporter, and you get a news bulletin from an overseas country. This bulletin reports that a different country has committed horrible atrocities against its neighboring nations. What do you do?
Well, if you trust the source, you take it as fact and run the story.
This is how propaganda works. It twists public and private beliefs based on purported evidence supplied by a source that the intended audience trusts. This exact scenario was used in World War I. The United States press was reporting on the events overseas based on falsified reports sent over by the British government. To build support against the other side, these reports fabricated tales of the German army taking despicable actions against their European neighbors.
Today, the same process has been adopted, taking advantage of the latent trust so many have in online information (especially that which lines up to one’s personal beliefs). Rather than feeding information to news outlets and other established media figures, however, social media gives those responsible for bending the facts to their favor a direct line to their audience.
These capabilities now give people, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum, an underhanded way to amplify their own agenda… but over time, and at great cost, some people have taken notice.
This has led to increased and more intense scrutiny of these online platforms and their policies.
Many social media platforms and online services have reacted by taking steps to better ensure the validity of political information that their audience members share and consume. Let’s look at some of these steps and how they might make the political discourse—as well as the overall process—more fact-driven and secure.
Facebook has been at the epicenter of many of these controversies. They were arguably responsible for the attention that all mainstream online platforms are now receiving. Lately, Facebook has seen pressure from both sides of the political aisle and has needed to also focus on the validity of the information it helps to amplify.
To do so, Facebook has begun a few initiatives.
The Election Information Hub
The most obvious one is the online hub that was launched on both Facebook and its acquired photo-sharing platform, Instagram. Intended to minimize the impacts of shared election misinformation, this tool is supposed to help potential voters find the information they need to participate in the process.
Adding to this complexity, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused no shortage of concern and confusion in recent months, and the election is now only exacerbating the concerns. The social network has been the focus of quite a bit of criticism based on the COVID-19 content that has appeared on its platform, primarily due to the misinformation that has spread as a result.
Similar issues with political content have also been present in the past. Depending on the political affiliation of who you ask, Facebook has either been amplifying misinformation shared to the benefit of a certain party or has been actively censoring the speech of certain political ideologies.
So, it stands to reason that Facebook would be particularly concerned with election security this year. In addition to past events, Facebook now must deal with other highly politicized topics. A few potential threats that have been predicted include users spreading misinformation about how to vote during a pandemic, hackers stealing and editing news stories before they are released, and generally manipulating public debate as votes are counted—all of which could unfairly influence the political process.
To try and combat as much of this as possible, Facebook plans to use this proposed hub to share verifiable sources of information for users to peruse, both in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic and the election’s results when the time comes.
Facebook and Instagram, alike, have also been campaigning through this information center to have users register to vote. Their goal is to get at least four million people registered for the 2020 US elections. The information center includes the capability for a user to check on their voting status and to register if they have not yet done so. Information on mail-in voting and the deadlines to do so will also be provided.
Safety and Security
In addition to labels that appear on posts to encourage users to learn more about the democratic process, Facebook has also implemented other labels to help inform their users. There are now labels that mark content from media sources controlled by a governing state, as well as fact-checking warnings to let users know that linked content may be misleading. Through Instagram, users are now required to authenticate themselves as a human user if certain behaviors are identified as a means of discouraging bots and other automated threats, or activity coming from a different country than where the user typically posts.
What Are Other Platforms Doing?
Facebook isn’t alone in trying to promote election security. While the social media network is involved, multiple industry giants have teamed up to help protect their platforms from undue influence during a time when good information is arguably at its most important. These giants include:
- The Wikimedia Foundation
These nine actively worked to protect their platforms from misinformation campaigns during this year’s Democratic National Convention, as they will during the upcoming Republican National Convention. On August 12, the group met with government agencies to collaborate with them as these agencies worked to insulate the election from any outside influence or interference and are set to continue doing so up until the day of the election.
This means that these platforms will be working to stop a variety of threats and propaganda through many means. In addition to labeling posts to encourage voting and to warn users of misleading information, these platforms have also begun publicly tracking political ads and helping to discourage politically motivated “news” pages.
Many are also giving their employees paid time off to vote on November 3rd.
Whether or not this improves the state of social media discourse, we’ll have to wait and see.
At Heart of Texas Network Consultants, we always support practices that will help to improve security. For information on what we can offer to benefit your business, reach out to us at (254) 848-7100, or read some of our other blogs.