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How Election Officials Can Fight Misinformation and Mistrust

Though election integrity is top of mind for officials during every election, 2020 presents an arguably unprecedented challenge in American politics. An unparalleled level of mistrust and worry surrounds the integrity of the 2020 election, with Russia showing no signs of slowing its spread of false information on social media that began in earnest in 2016 but continues to this day. Meanwhile, key federal authority figures float the idea that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud.

This kind of widespread election misinformation poses a serious threat to both the upcoming election and democracy as a whole. And that’s before you combine all this with the fear, uncertainty and false information surrounding COVID-19.

Not only could all of this throw 2020 into further chaos, but it could also weaken Americans’ already diminished faith in our storied institutions, potentially damaging long-term voter turnout. As a result, more politicians might cater to the extreme ends of their bases, which will likely polarize the parties even more.

The long-term effects of spreading false information on social media will impact government from the federal level down to local elections. The moderation that helps govern the intense diversity of thought and opinion in the United States could dissipate, and the government could cease to function as it should.

How Election Officials Can Stem the Tide of Election Misinformation

This outline sounds bleak, but it’s important to remember that it hasn’t happened yet. Election officials still have the power to mitigate the effects of disinformation and ensure that the election is fair and trusted. But the work has to begin immediately. Here are four steps officials should take right now to avoid disaster come election day.

1. Develop and publicize a comprehensive election FAQ.

Work with public information officers to build out and distribute an extensive list of frequently asked questions that will help you combat voter misinformation. To get this list out to the people who need it, promote it on both local media and social media channels. Pay special attention to how you distribute these FAQs, too.

With misinformation particularly prevalent on social platforms, it can be hard to convince people that your source is the right one. Where applicable, use the hashtag #TrustedInfo2020, which is created and promoted by the National Association of Secretaries of State. That way, you can create a foundation of association and further establish yourself as a trusted source.

2. Boost election transparency.

It can be difficult to have faith in a system when you can’t see it in action. Work with local media to conduct tours of your operations. This allows you to address security concerns head-on and help voters better understand the various layers in place that protect the anonymity and security of their ballots — and the integrity of the 2020 election results.

Depending on your district, getting local media to cover this might be difficult. If that’s the case, opt for livestreaming instead. You have a variety of platforms to choose from, such as Facebook Live, Twitch, Instagram Live and YouTube. No need to pick just one. You can use them all to share how you are making elections happen in a secure, trustworthy manner.

3. Seek out additional resources.

You can’t fight the flood of information on your own, so recruit backup. Sign up for tools like MITRE’s SQUINT, which allows you to flag false information when you find it. SQUINT not only creates a report to help you share confirmed corrections, but every contribution also goes into a database that is used to find patterns and stop election misinformation before it goes viral.

4. Invest in training.

The problem of election meddling and misinformation is a complicated, evolving one, so it’s important to give everyone the support and training they need to keep up. Election officials can take advantage of a variety of solutions for cybersecurity training. The University of Southern California, for instance, has partnered with Google to provide training in cybersecurity basics. There’s also a Cybersecurity 101 course offered by The Center for Tech and Civic Life. These resources will help your workforce build the knowledge to ensure U.S. election security.

Election officials will need to fight disinformation campaigns by actively correcting falsehoods and getting the facts about the 2020 election in front of as many people as possible. Maintaining election integrity isn’t easy, but it’s work that could change not only the outcome of this election but also the future of our governmental institutions for the better.

Mattie Gullixson is a project manager at National Cybersecurity Center. She has experience at the state and local government levels, and her election experience includes her work as the Assistant Elections Manager in El Paso County, Colorado, with over 400,000 registered voters. Mattie received her BS in Economics from George Mason University and master’s in International Political Economy of Resources from Colorado School of Mines.

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