#Election2020 Through the Lens of Social Media

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While not yet 100% officially confirmed, and despite the looming prospect of legal contests over the coming weeks, it looks all but certain that Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States on January 20, 2021. This follows a lengthy, controversial and at times, brutal campaign between Biden and the current incumbent at the White House, Donald Trump.

Social media has played an increasingly major role in elections around the world in recent years, and this was very evident in the previous US Presidential election of 2016. This was none more so than via the Twitter account of Donald Trump himself, which at times seemed to be leading the news agenda.

Fast forward to 2020, and the impact of social media on this election has been ramped up to 11, to coin a phrase from Spinal Tap. The COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the US in March, has led to much of the population spending far more time indoors in line with social distancing restrictions. As a result, people have become more reliant on the internet and social media as their sources of information, and a far greater proportion of the campaigning has taken place digitally.

This offers even more opportunities for malicious actors to try and influence voters through the spread of misinformation, such as the use of deepfake technology to manipulate videos, which was a widely discussed topic from four years ago. With the dust just beginning to settle following polling day last week, how has the election played out on social media this time around?

A major feature of this election was that social media giants, particularly Twitter, took a much tougher stance on the spread of fake news

The Build Up to the Election

A major feature of this election was that social media giants, particularly Twitter, took a much tougher stance on the spread of fake news. This particularly focused around ensuring people were aware of potential bias from official and state-affiliated outlets. From June 2020, Facebook started flagging content from state-controlled media outlets, while Twitter announced a ban on political advertising at the end of last year.

In August, Twitter revealed it was expanding the labels it would use for government and state-affiliated media accounts to help enable people “make informed decisions about what they see and how they engage on Twitter.”

Additionally, in May, Twitter updated its policy on misleading information in which it said it would label tweets containing potentially harmful, misleading information related to COVID. This approach would go on to prove important in the context of the US election.

Very quickly, controversy emanating from these new approaches ensued a few weeks later, when a tweet by Donald Trump claiming that mail-in (postal) ballots in the upcoming election would be “substantially fraudulent” was labelled “misleading” by the social media firm. Trump unsurprisingly hit back strongly, arguing the company’s response was stifling free speech and an interference in the upcoming election.

Twitter then went even further in October by temporarily locking the account of the President’s official campaign team after it attempted to tweet a video referencing a recent article by the New York Post which featured published leaked emails that suggested in 2015, Biden's son Hunter arranged for the then Vice President to meet with a top executive at the Ukrainian natural gas company he was working for. In addition, the company censored the Post's primary Twitter account for posting the Hunter Biden story.

These actions were made on the basis that it had violated Twitter’s rules on publishing leaked information. Amid anger from the Republican party about perceived double standards, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted this was the wrong decision and also acknowledged that “our communication around our actions on the @nypost article was not great. And blocking URL sharing via tweet or DM with zero context as to why we’re blocking: unacceptable.”

Claims of Voter Fraud

In what some may now see as quite a prophetic pronouncement, in September the FBI predicted that the likely delays in results being announced due to the increased use of mail-in ballots this year would provide hostile nations and cyber-criminals with fertile ground to develop misinformation campaigns.

“Foreign actors and cyber-criminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results"

It explained: “Foreign actors and cyber-criminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyber-attacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy.”

While it must be stressed that allegations of voter fraud may become the subject of further investigation and litigation, the scenario painted by the FBI appears to be coming to fruition. It was believed that a far greater proportion of Democrat voters would utilize mail-in voting compared to their Republican counterparts, the early Trump lead in many states quickly evaporated as the postal ballots begun to be counted.

This led to claims that votes for Donald Trump would not be counted repeated across social media, bringing about high tension and fears of that violence could break out at polling stations. While the validity of these claims is still to be fully investigated, it is already clear that there is plenty of misinformation being peddled. In one example uncovered so far, a map of voting in battleground state Michigan wrongly showing an increase of over 138,000 votes for Joe Biden, but no additional votes for Donald Trump, went viral and ended up being tweeted by the President himself. Although the screenshot was real, it turned out to be a result of a data entry error rather than as part of any sophisticated conspiracy.

Continued tweets by Trump questioning the legitimacy of the election in the past week have been labelled with terms such as “potentially misleading” and “disputed”, some with a link leading to a collection of news articles purporting to debunk the President’s claims.

It is likely that there is more drama yet to unfold in this year’s unpredictable Presidential election, and so far, social media has already played a huge part in ongoing saga. It is arguably more relevant this year than any other as a result of COVID-19 social distancing restrictions, and Twitter in particular has responded to criticisms of previous election cycles by taking a much tougher stance on the spread of fake news.

Although it is impossible to completely prevent the spread of misinformation on such a vast network, Twitter and other social media firms have certainly made more efforts to inform their users of the need to have caution when looking at information from state affiliated sources, including the current President.

However, getting the balance between the right to free speech and preventing the spread of misinformation is always going to be difficult, especially in such a highly charged atmosphere. The clear targeting of Donald Trump and some of his supporters in this regard has only increased suspicions that companies like Twitter are not even handed in their approach, and have a liberal bias.

As intimated by Jack Dorsey with the Hunter Biden episode, these firms must become more transparent with the decisions they take, and provide their users with the context in which they take them, to counter these types of allegations.

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