With American elections being a target of mis- and disinformation efforts, the federal government must take action to provide technical expertise and resources to combat election disinformation and support state and local election officials. That was the subject of the Committee on Homeland Security’s virtual hearing, Securing Democracy: Protecting Against Threats to Election Infrastructure and Voter Confidence, held Thursday, January 20th. Chairwoman Yvette Clarke (D-NY) led the discussion, highlighting a soon to be introduced bill authorizing the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to identify, track and address mis- and disinformation, and the urgent need for action in this area. As Clarke noted: “We are at an inflection point in our nation’s history. Terms like election security and election integrity are being weaponized in ways I’ve never seen before.”
The discussion brought together experts on the topic, including Alex Stamos, Director of the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO), and of the Election Integrity Partnership, and Matt Masterson, policy fellow at SIO and lead on The 2020 Elections Oral History Project, to lend their insights around the origins and effects of mis- and disinformation in the United States and what that has meant for the public, and for election officials tasked with administering safe and healthy elections.
Citing research and findings gleaned by Stamos and his team during the study of election disinformation throughout 2020, Stamos explained that the disinformation that ultimately led to the events of January 6th, was “primed by months and months of narrative building during 2020, mostly by allies of President Trump.” The narrative that the election was likely to be stolen, encouraged people to “be on the lookout”. Stamos dispelled some common assumptions about where that disinformation was coming from, saying it was mostly homegrown in nature. “For the most part,” Stamos said, “disinformation is an American thing we are doing to ourselves and to each other.” And content didn’t go viral because of an algorithm; instead it was because a “small number of verified influencers…decided something was going to be the controversy that day and were able to turn it into a viral piece of content.”
Matt Masterson, who previously led election work at CISA, noted that a lack of governance structures around election IT, as well as inconsistent funding and support, contributed to election officials facing threats against themselves and their families. In order to best support election officials and mitigate threats to our election process, Masterson said we must consistently fund elections at the state and federal level, ensure the physical security of election officials, require state law enforcement to share threats against election officials and levy penalties against those who threaten election officials. “Our elections are imperfect; they’re massive, messy, underfunded and under-resourced. But they are accurate, secure, accessible and fair because of the tireless work of state and local election officials.” The only response to the ongoing threats against our democracy, Masterson said, is "sustained investment in those working hard to protect it.”
The full recording of the session can be found on YouTube, where the transcript is also available.