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The 2020 Election is a Big Test for Democracies Worldwide

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“The 2016 election was not just an event, it was a playbook that was written by the Russians,” Nathaniel Persily, who is a senior fellow at FSI and co-director of the Cyber Policy Center, told FSI Director Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast. Photo: Rod Searcey

Did the Russian-affiliated groups that interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election want to be caught?

“There’s a reason why they paid for Facebook ads in rubles,” Nathaniel Persily, who is a senior fellow at FSI and co-director of the Cyber Policy Center, told FSI Director Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast. “They wanted to be open and notorious.”

Since the election, Americans have become more suspicious of fake news, but they have also become suspicious of real news and journalists in general. Another problem with the Russians’ success in influencing the 2016 election, said Persily, is that Americans will automatically assume that the Russians will do the same thing during the 2020 race.

“Everyone is going to be looking for nefarious influences and shouting them from the rooftops, and that actually serves the [bad actors’] purposes just as much,” Persily said. “Many of the attempts in 2016 were about fostering division and doubt, and I think there’s a lot of appetite for doubt right now in America.”

Since 2016, Facebook, Twitter and Google have made some important changes to the way they handle advertising, including adding a requirement that all candidate ads and other ads of “national legislative importance” be identified as advertisements on users’ feeds.

But there are no standardized rules or regulations that dictate how tech companies should handle advertisements or posts that contain disinformation, Persily said, and because of this, it is up to those respective companies to make those decisions themselves  — and they aren’t always in agreement. For example, when a video of Nancy Pelosi that was slowed down to make her seem drunk was posted in late May on YouTube and Facebook, YouTube took the video down, but Facebook decided to leave it up.

“The standards that are going to be developed in test cases like these — under conditions which are not as politically incendiary as an election — are going to be the ones that will be rolled out and applied in elections in the U.S. and around the world,” Persily said.

When it comes to election security, the 2020 presidential race will be the next big test for the U.S. government and private-sector companies. But other countries should also be on the lookout for activity from foreign agents and actors in their elections.

“The 2016 election was not just an event, it was a playbook that was written by the Russians,” warned Persily. “That playbook is usable for future elections in the United States as well as around the world, whether it’s between India and Pakistan or China and Taiwan.”