What Went Right in the 2020 Election

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A lot went wrong after the 2020 election in the United States. But here’s one thing that went right during it: A risk everyone worried about — foreign election interference — mostly failed.

That showed what is possible when government officials and technology companies are laser focused on a problem, effectively coordinate and learn from their past mistakes.

But the false narrative that the election was stolen, culminating in a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, also pointed to the limits of those efforts. The Russians or the Chinese didn’t delegitimize our election. We did it to ourselves.

Today, I want to explore the glass half-full view. The largely averted threat of foreign election meddling was a success that shouldn’t be overlooked.

What went wrong the last time

Let me first remind you what happened around the 2016 election. Russian hackers pilfered documents from the Democratic National Committee and tried to muck around with state election infrastructure. Digital propagandists backed by the Russian government also fanned information on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and elsewhere that sought to erode people’s faith in voting or inflame social divisions.

Powerful American institutions — notably local, state and federal government officials as well as large internet companies — were slow to tackle the problem or had initially dismissed it. The effect of the hacking and trolling wasn’t clear, but the worry was that foreign governments would regularly seek to disrupt U.S. elections and that it would contribute to Americans’ lack of trust in our systems and with one another.

What happened in 2020

Some foreign governments, including Russia and Iran, tried to disrupt our elections again, but it mostly didn’t work. The same U.S. institutions and digital defenses that failed four years earlier largely held strong this time.

“The progress that was made between 2016 and 2020 was remarkable,” said Camille François, chief innovation officer at Graphika, a firm that analyzes manipulation of social networks.

What changed in government and tech

One major shift after 2016 was that federal government officials and the state and local officials who run elections overcame initial mistrust to collaborate more effectively on voting threats. Matt Masterson, who until recently was a senior adviser on election security for the Department of Homeland Security, said coordination was the biggest change that helped shore up digital defenses in election management systems.

“This is as good as the federal government has worked on any issue in my experience,” Masterson said.

He also credited efforts in states, notably Georgia, that created paper trails of ballots that could be audited quickly and provide more visibility into the vote counting to help increase people’s trust in the election process.

The tech companies, François said, shifted to acknowledge their blind spots. For the first time, online powers including Facebook wrote policies specifically tackling foreign government meddling and put people in charge of stopping it. They also made it harder for foreign trolls to use some of their 2016 tactics, such as buying online advertisements to circulate divisive messages widely.

Social media companies also started to publicly announce when they found campaigns by foreign governments that were used to mislead people online. François said that helped researchers and journalists better assess the techniques of foreign propagandists — and the shared knowledge helped internet companies stop trolling campaigns before they had a big impact.

Cooperation improved between government and tech companies, too. There were regular meetings between major internet companies and the federal officials responsible for election protection to share information. And internet companies began to tell the public when the U.S. government tipped them off about foreign interference on their websites.

Both François and Masterson said that an “aha” moment was the response to Iran’s effort to intimidate voters during the fall. National security officials said then that Iran had obtained some Americans’ voter-registration data, most of which was publicly available, to send deceptive messages that threatened voters.

Because they were ready for threats like this, officials were able to make connections between voter intimidation in multiple states, identify the source of the menacing messages, inform election officials across the country and tell voters what was happening — all in about a day.

“That couldn’t have happened in 2016, and it likely couldn’t have happened in 2018,” Masterson said. “That was what we had all trained for.”

What’s next

While internet companies and the U.S. government caught up to the kinds of interference they faced in 2016, they failed at confronting the even trickier challenge of a campaign led by the president himself to cast doubt on the election process despite no substantial evidence. And foreign cyber attacks and online propaganda efforts certainly haven’t stopped.

But it could have been much worse. A lot went right in the election because powerful institutions took the risk of foreign hacking and trolling seriously and rose to the challenge. That’s a hopeful lesson for future elections, the pandemic and other crises.

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A train of duckies snakes through an opening in half-frozen water.

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