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Election defenders’ top 2024 worry: Online rumors, deceptions, lies swaying the masses

Election defenders’ top 2024 worry: Online rumors, deceptions, lies swaying the masses


Steven Rosenfeld
December 29. 2023
Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
As 2024’s elections loom, the biggest worries voiced by officials and democracy advocates concern the reach of mistaken or deceptive narratives — misinformation and disinformation — and their persuasive power to shape political beliefs, identities, and provoke threats and violence.
“It’s the minds of voters,” replied Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, when asked at the 2023 Aspen Cyber Summit about the biggest threat to 2024’s elections. Benson emphasized that it was not the reliability of the voting system or cybersecurity. “It’s the confusion, and chaos, and the sense of division, and the sense of disengagement that bad actors are very much trying to instill in our citizenry.”
“What I’m worried about most for the 2024 election — election vigilantism,” Marc Elias, a top Democratic Party lawyer, said during a recent “Defending Democracy” podcast. “Election vigilantism, to put it simply, is when individuals or small groups act in a sort of loosely affiliated way to engage in voter harassment, voter intimidation, misinformation campaigns or voter challenges.”
Such assessments are increasingly heard in election defense circles. So, too, is a consensus that the best response is recruiting “trusted voices,” or credible people in communities, online or otherwise, who will quickly say “not so fast,” attest to the process, and, hopefully, be heard before passions trample facts or run amok.
“All the tools we need to instill confidence in our elections exist,” Benson told the cyber summit. “We just have to get them — not just in the hands of trusted voices, but then communicate effectively to the people who need to hear them.”
But communicating effectively is not simple, according to the nation’s leading scholars and researchers who study how rumors spread online, and how people use online content to make sense of what is happening during crises.
A decade ago, when Stanford University computer science graduate turned professional basketball player Kate Starbird returned to academia, she was interested in studying how social media could be helpful in crises. Starbird, the future co-founder of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, helped to create a field known as crisis informatics.”
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