Disinformation is the biggest problem in elections

This is the year of elections everywhere. Most notably, the United States will determine which party controls government as well as electing one of two people who have already held the high office. The UK may see the Conservative party finally give way to Labour. But there are also elections in India Malaysia, Russia, and 50 other countries affecting 4.2 billion people on the planet. It may be the biggest year for elections in recorded history. But disinformation is a bigger problem than hacking a voting machine.

Interference in those elections by enemies within and without is almost a given. In some cases that interference will determine the outcome. The United States, which may be the biggest influence in world affairs is possibly the most secure elections system in the world, but you wouldn’t know it from the campaign rhetoric. With three years of research about the viability of the 2020 presidential election under the belt, there has been no new evidence or litigation regarding election fraud in the 2020 election.

How to rig an election

Election fraud includes forging signatures on voting registration forms, filling out an absentee ballot for someone who has died or moved away, voting while ineligible, or pretending to be someone else at the polling place and voting. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank has been monitoring elections for over a decade and found, during that time, only 1,465 proven cases of election fraud — 1,264 of these resulted in criminal prosecutions and the remainder resulted in civil prosecutions, diversion programs, judicial findings, or official findings. Considering that is out of hundreds of millions of cast votes, it’s not even a rounding error. For example, the fraud in Texas amounted to 0.000096% of all ballots cast.

In an interview with Harri Hursti, an election fraud expert, Hursti called the 2020 election one of the most secure elections in several decades. Hursti thinks 2024 will be at least as secure if not more so, especially with much of the US standardizing on hand-marked paper ballots.

The real problem in election interference, however, is not about hacking the election system. It is whether the electorate trusts the system.

Unnecessary distrust

An Associated Press poll showed only 22% of Republicans have high confidence in votes being counted accurately in 2024 because of disinformation. In a 2022 interview leading up to the mid-term elections Johannes M. Bauer, the Quello Chair for Media and Information Policy in Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences, said “Disinformation undermines trust in elections, their outcomes, the media system reporting on elections and the broader political and governmental institutions that any prosperous, peaceful society needs. This could result in long-term damage to our country’s ability to solve the most challenging economic and social problems, which often require finding common ground. People need to be able to talk to each other and find workable solutions to bridge different opinions about political issues. If disinformation becomes such a corrosive agent that it reduces our ability to talk to each other, then society is at risk.”

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Personal responsibility

Claims of freedom-of-speech violations hamper efforts to stop disinformation, at least in the US. That leaves personal responsibility the only outcome. Luckily, tools are available to help determine if the information we make our decisions with is valid.

For example, in 2022 the Mozilla Foundation created a tool that was spun out as a separate company named Open Measures. Designed for journalists, researchers, and social enterprises, the tool identify and moderate harmful online activity. The downside is it isn’t generally available to the public. Then there is a game called Bad News, which shows how to become a “fake news baron” by creating rumors. In the end, thinking before posting is the best defense.

Lou Covey is the Chief Editor for Cyber Protection Magazine. In 50 years as a journalist he covered American politics, education, religious history, women’s fashion, music, marketing technology, renewable energy, semiconductors, avionics. He is currently focused on cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. He published a book on renewable energy policy in 2020 and is writing a second one on technology aptitude. He hosts the Crucial Tech podcast.

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