Experts sound the alarm on 2020 election-meddling

Combating online deception on the government level requires a 'multi-level approach,' says assistant chief elections officer

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

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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Matthew Vollrath writes for The Almanac, the sister publication of

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11 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2019 at 12:10 pm

I think Facebook's attempts to police the situation only makes it worse because now they're part of the propaganda wars with a far greater and more dangerous power to deceive because they own the technology!
People need to voluntarily stop using Facebook, Google and Twitter. There ARE good alternatives. Try Brave browser. Try DuckDuckGo search engine.
We can't complain about what happens with these malignant social media entities (reddit is incredibly toxic as well) as long as we keep using and depending on them.

24 people like this
Posted by Sung da Song
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 11, 2019 at 12:20 pm

You missed the 800 lb gorilla - Russia. Good deflection!

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2019 at 12:20 pm

Big problem is people sharing things in such a way that others believe them. Sites like Babylon Bee and the Onion are shared and even if the sharer understands that these are satire, others will not and then share and others believe what is said. Satire is only satire if it is apparent. Unfortunately, it is not always apparent to all.

28 people like this
Posted by Sung da Song
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 11, 2019 at 12:35 pm

We call the intelligence communities of the western democracies "satire"?

The Mueller report is satire?

10 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 11, 2019 at 10:57 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Russia is not the problem. China is. And Google and Fb are working with China. That came up on the news today and will be looked into. You all are consumed with Russia. Do you all realize how many of the population is from the former soviet countries and are living here now? Mr. Schiff's LA congressional district is a main location for the former soviet country population. He does U-tubes to support their annual fund drives. Do you think that they contribute to his political fund drives? If he does U-tube presentations to support their fund drives then they are contributing to him. I think he attacks Trump because Trump is cutting off migration of family members.

16 people like this
Posted by @Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 11, 2019 at 11:46 pm Just wow.

Guess that means that you never read the Mueller Report, right?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 12, 2019 at 8:04 am

[Post removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 14, 2019 at 11:59 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

So every one is interpreting the Mueller Report in what ever fashion to support whatever their political agenda is? The whole event was started by a phony document paid for by the DNC prepared by a foreign agent. The Russian "involvement" started in the Obama years. That group sold US uranium to the Russians. Hilary wanted a Russian reset. And Russia paid the DNC and Clinton Foundation large amounts of money to facilitate the uranium purchase. So the FBI had to cover that all up.

The law of unintended consequences just kept piling up. And the lies just kept piling up. Mueller knew it was a fake and just kept the whole thing going. It is like a bunch of people that thought they would have a job for life if Hilary won and then created the method by which they have a job for life. Look at how much money has been spent on this whole charade. Always - Follow the Money.
[Portion removed.]

Mr. Mueller and Mr. Comey go way back in time like a tag team wrestling pair. They put Martha Stewart in jail. What a bunch of guys. Back in The day they could get away with "stuff" but those days are gone. Too many blabbers that are out of control. Check out their bios on Wikipedia. A bunch of "fixers". If Hilary won they would have been on top of the world. BOOM!

4 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 15, 2019 at 7:48 am

mauricio is a registered user.

The Russians have exploited Facebook's algorithms and business model to decisively influence the 2016 US elections. The Brexit vote and the Brazil elections were also influenced by Facebook's algorithms and business model; manipulating attention, isolating users in filters and preference bubbles which increase extremism and leaving them vulnerable to invasion of privacy, loss of agency and behavior modification. These algorithms and business model have created a deadly weapon for those who would impose their will on the powerless.

The single minded pursuit of growth and profit of corporations like Facebook, Google and their subsidiaries like YouTube, a hotbed for conspiracy theory distribution, corporations that do not believe they should be held accountable for the consequences of their actions will produce side effects like the Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, massacres in Sri Lanka and Mayamar, etc.

I would highly recommend the brilliant book 'Zucked 'by Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and early mentor of the FB founder as well as an early investor in facebook.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 15, 2019 at 10:44 am

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

Did any one study history in school? There were many migrations in the early 1900's due to the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire leading to WW1. That is Turkey and it's surrounding countries. Then in WW2 Russia was part of the Allied Forces - they were on our side.
There were major migrations at that time to the US - a lot to New York and Los Angeles. There are long standing Russian communities in the US that have been here for generations. There are long standing Eastern European communities that have been here for generations. One of the Google boys was born in Moscow. And make no mistake they all go to their churches - Eastern Orthodox - and make sure that the next generations know where they came from and typically have them visit the homeland every year.
Also an area in LA that was Hebrew - Fairfax area - now where CBS is located. They moved out to the valley and more recent migrations of eastern Europeans arrived.
You don't have to go to Russia - Russia has been here for generations. There is even a group in Honolulu that is in the cosmetic business and selling their wares on the main drag. Talking about the Russian Connection that has been here for generations is a bit different than the current president of Russia
who wants to rebuild his empire.

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