The high-stakes midterm elections have seen many voters push back against electoral conspiracy theories, often favoring candidates who support the 2020 election results.
Now experts are analyzing the narratives that have emerged around the midterms, to understand how the ecosystem of misinformation and disinformation is changing and what the struggle for truth around the 2024 election might look like.
“The American voter stood up [against election deniers] and said, “We’re done, at least for now,” Chris Krebs, former director of CISA and current founding partner of the Krebs Stamos Group, said at the Aspen Institute Cyber Summit this week. Krebs was fired after challenging President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of 2020 voter fraud.
Additionally, emerging policies in the European Union could see social media platforms operate with more transparency and scrutiny. two years from now, Rik Ferguson, vice president of security intelligence at cybersecurity firm Forescout, said at the summit.
Yet politicians and election officials must remain vigilant about communicating with the public and dispelling lies. Election-related misinformation and disinformation are not going away, and their proponents remain an active group.
The midterms avoided a repeat of efforts by 2020 election deniers to mobilize to overturn the result. This is partly because the disinformation and misinformation ecosystem lacked a high-level authority figure to rally believers, said Yasmin Green, CEO of Google’s Jigsaw, a unit focused on on countering violent extremism, harmful disinformation and other “threats to open societies”.
“But you definitely have this capacity for mobilization that has developed,” Green said. “If there was anyone at the top who was able to command this base to act, it’s definitely there.”
What happened halfway through?
The midterm election processes were conducted safely, Krebs said, although they were not free from false narratives.
Defeated Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake notably refused to accept election results after a county encountered printing problems. The issues impacted a minority of ballots and voters were able to cast their vote by other means. By The hill, County election officials said all voters had the opportunity to vote and a state judge found no evidence to the contrary.
Minor glitches are inevitable in any operation using hardware or software, which is why electoral processes do not depend on a single technology but rather have, for example, multiple ways to vote, Krebs noted. But election deniers quickly turned the printing incident into a story of an attempt to rig the election.
These types of stories show a refinement of messaging strategies developed in 2020.
“With 2020, there was an element of A/B testing which stories worked,” Krebs said. “…There was a lot of foreign interference in the beginning, with Italian spy satellites, Spanish server farms, Chinese entering through the thermostat. But technically, it’s kind of hard to grasp and understand…so it was never really going to get that media traction.
It instead pivoted to allegations of domestic — not foreign — fraud efforts, exploiting “tribalist” sentiment to paint the Democratic Party as perpetrators, Krebs said. The mid-term reviews focused on these themes.
But there have been some notable changes, Ferguson said. Unsubstantiated stories in 2020 pushed the idea that voter fraud was a new phenomenon and that locals could act to stop it. But the 2022 narratives have treated attempts to steal elections as collateral.
“It has become a core belief that underlies any deliberate misinformation or misinformation received regarding election activities in the United States,” Ferguson said. The idea is that “we don’t have to prove it to you anymore. What we need to do is inspire you to act on this belief that we have already instilled in you. To me, it’s actually potentially more dangerous, because it means the groundwork is laid.
Election denial is tenacious, in part because believers find a strong sense of community and identity in it and because there is profit to be made in pushing such claims, Green said. Jigsaw researchers have attended “True Believer” conventions and found that they create social community and bring together adherents to a wide range of fringe ideas, from electoral denial to discredited medical theories.
“It’s a community that’s here now for the social connection, for the capital ‘truth,’ and they’re not going away,” Green said.
The variety of merchandise for sale is a testament to the financial motivation to perpetuate such baseless claims.
“They all have their own take on the misinformation they’re peddling,” Green said. “…There were a ton of medical remedies for sale, derivative products… T-shirts, banners, as well as coins designed for 5G protection and everything you can imagine selling .”
Online content moderation policies, while not “fully effective,” are having an impact, Green said. Election deniers report having their posts taken down and leaving mainstream platforms to others with weaker policies such as Parler and Truth Social.
The social media environment may undergo a bigger change ahead of the 2024 election: the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA) is expected to come into force for large platforms in 2023 and smaller ones by mid -february. 2024, by TechCrunch. The law aims to strengthen online security and trust. This forces big platforms to follow more rules around algorithmic transparency and risk assessments and puts them under the centralized oversight of the European Commission.
The DSA would also see these social media networks working together to identify and address systemic risk that affects them all, Ferguson said.
Although this is an EU policy, Ferguson said this could impact the operation of major platforms around the world, as they may wish to avoid running separate policies for EU users and users from other regions.
Officials can also take action against misinformation and disinformation. A key strategy is to pre-bed or prep residents in advance to distinguish fact from fiction.
Such an approach involves three steps, Green said: warning people that there will be attempts to manipulate them; explain what types of false narratives they are likely to encounter; and explaining why these claims are false.
Misinformation and disinformation tend to adhere to similar tropes, which means officials can guess what kinds of allegations are likely to arise around a particular topic or event. For example, violent white supremacist groups — despite their differences — all tend to rely on the pseudoscience of race, Green said.
“The question is, how do you get ahead of a narrative that hasn’t happened yet?” said Green. “It is the predictability of misinformation that can be its downfall.”
As 2024 approaches, strong communication remains essential.
Political leaders must call out the lies, and it will be critical to help election officials continue to communicate with the public about how elections work, Krebs said. And while fact-versus-fiction sites — like CISA’s Rumor Control — won’t reach entrenched election deniers, they can influence those who are undecided. Introducing civics into K-12 education could also better prepare the next generation, he said.