Stanford debrief hits on role of tech in spreading election (mis)information

Nov. 4, 2020, 10:17 p.m.

Growing concerns about election outcome reports in battleground states, as well as guidelines on absentee and mail-in voting, have taken center stage as the nation awaits election results.

Panelists from the Stanford Cyber Policy Center at a public 2020 Election Debrief webinar raised concerns about misinformation — including early claims of victory and voter fraud — in the undecided presidential election on Wednesday.

The discussion on Election Day trends and digital technologies featured six panelists — including Nathaniel Persily and Rob Reich — from the Freeman Spogli Institute, the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI) and the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

Persily, a law professor who co-founded the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, warned of the lawsuits in Pennsylvania over curing mail-in ballots, which tend to lean Democrat, as “laying the groundwork” for potential federal challenges against ballot curing. He raised concern that some could make the argument that local election officials departed from state law by allowing voters to “cure” — to correct defects — in their ballots.

He also said that the “failure” of critical states like Pennsylvania to allow vote processing before Election Day is exacerbating the nation’s “anxiety over the counting of the absentee ballots,” along with the notion of a “red mirage.” A red mirage is an election outcome in which early results appear to favor — in the case of this election — President Trump but eventually turn to favor former Vice President Joe Biden as more absentee or mail-in ballots are counted.

As results continue to trickle in, Persily said he expected to see concerns about voter fraud and lack of vote pre-processing continue. 

Persily did praise states for taking steps to adapt the election to the pandemic. “In the face of a pandemic, an incredibly polarized political system, issues of disinformation and accusations of fraud hanging over the entire process, [states] were able to transform [polling] and to get through the system a record number of voters,” he said.

Stanford Internet Observatory Director Alex Stamos and research manager Renee DiResta predicted that the public can expect Election Day news to be repurposed to claim incidences of fraud and target misinformation to important battleground states, citing the president’s false declaration of victory last night. 

Stamos added that it can be “dangerous and difficult” for tech companies to serve as intermediaries for newsworthy yet misleading content. Stamos formerly served as Facebook and Yahoo’s chief security officer.

Although Twitter and Facebook added warnings to Trump’s tweet about victory, the companies have received backlash for their application of content moderation guidelines throughout the election season.

However, Stamos said tech companies can still prevent a “cascade effect” in which misinformation spreads across individuals and creates a “conventional wisdom that’s not based upon reality.”

Andrew Grotto, director of the Cyber Policy Center’s Program on Geopolitics, Technology and Governance, took a different stance. Grotto, who helped develop guidelines for news organizations, said that platforms may contradict their goal of debunking false and misleading content by “exposing [falsehoods] to a broader audience.” 

“It’s too early for a final grade for 2020, both because the election is still ongoing, and also because I don’t think credible fact-based news organizations have faced any major threats yet, notwithstanding Hunter Biden’s laptop,” he said. 

Panelists said that regardless of the outcome of the election, continued work would need to be done to restore faith in the country’s democracy.

Marietje Schaake, the center’s international policy director, HAI international policy fellow and former European Parliament member, offered an international perspective on the election’s outcome: “Trump’s imprint on these elections, on the United States, and its position in the world will outlast his presidency if he is not staying on for a second term, and with narrow margins, even if Joe Biden wins, a lot of attention will be needed at home in order to heal the divided country,” she said.

Associate Director of HAI and Co-Director of Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society Rob Reich offered historical insights, speaking of the “growing divide” between the popular vote and the Electoral College with regard to the 2000, 2016 and 2020 elections.

“Our framers of the U.S. Constitution were concerned about the tyranny of the majority over the minority, but what I think we have to face very clearly now is the prospect of an enduring and entrenched minority that finds its way to govern the country despite losing popular votes,” Reich said. 

Contact Priti Rangnekar at pritir ‘at’

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