Election securityKathleen Hall Jamieson on the 2020 Election

Published 21 October 2020

Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson discusses what we learned from the election four years ago plus how journalists can responsibly share hacked content and what role the public at large can play. She says that in some ways, the country is better prepared today than during the 2016 election cycle, which was fraught with cybertrolls, hacked emails, and leaked content. In other ways, the United States hasn’t learned much from that experience.

The Presidential election is now just a few weeks away, and Penn’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson has been following the run-up to 3 November closely.

“What’s happening right now is complicated, and the public at large is coping with trying to raise families, put food on the table, gain and hold work in a COVID world,” says Jamieson, a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, whose projects include FactCheck.org and SciCheck. “Attention to the ins and outs of voter interference are probably not on the radar of ordinary people.”

Yet, according to Jamieson, it’s now more important than ever to pay attention. In some ways, the country is better prepared today than during the 2016 election cycle, which was fraught with cybertrolls, hacked emails, and leaked content. In other ways, the United States hasn’t learned much from that experience, which Jamieson chronicled in her award-winning 2018 book Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President, and the update out this summer.

Michele W. Berger of Penn Today spoke with Jamieson about how this election looks different from four years ago, why voting by mail is likely more resistant to fraud than voting electronically, and much more.

Michele W. Berger: Where do we stand today compared to the 2016 election lead up?
Kathleen Hall Jamieson
:Social media platforms were vulnerable in 2016 because they didn’t realize what was happening. Now they’re closing down inauthentic accounts—people pretending to be someone they’re not—and they’ve been doing it extensively. Many now are performing a fact-checking operation by blocking or annotating posts containing false health information, so there’s a corrective function in place. YouTube is now identifying government-funded sources of information, so viewers will be able to identify the source behind a message. 

Beyond that, the platforms have put rules in place that make it very difficult for foreign nationals to buy advertising; you now have to have a business ID and address that’s an actual location in the U.S. That doesn’t mean a foreign operation couldn’t still plant someone here and satisfy those rules, but it’s much more difficult. The platforms have stepped up in important ways and made it less likely that a comparable Russian operation to the one in 2016 would have the same effect in 2020. 

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