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Election 2020

A Senate report has ideas for fighting disinformation. Don’t hold your breath.

October 9, 2019
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A US Senate panel just released a bipartisan report with recommendations for preventing foreign interference in the 2020 US presidential election. It includes suggestions for tech companies, Congress, and the president. It’s optimistic, to say the least.

Learn to share: Because all disinformation campaigns use more than one platform, tech companies should share more information with each other, the report says. Companies should also share more information with outside researchers who could spot problems. 

Okay, so maybe this bit isn’t so hard. There’s already some communication happening, as when Facebook took down pages linked to Chinese disinformation campaigns after receiving a tip from Twitter. Sharing with true outsiders will be more of a stretch. Social-media platforms are famously reluctant to give detailed data to researchers and analysts. They say it might violate user privacy. Researchers say companies are afraid that sharing the data would hurt their competitive edge and bottom line. The back-and-forth continues. 

Honest Ads? The report suggests that Congress should pass legislation making it easier to see who is funding political ads. If it were that easy, lawmakers would already have done it. Three senators—including Democratic presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar—introduced a bill that would do just that, called the Honest Ads Act, back in 2017. It has since stalled, with some critics saying it’s unnecessary because so little political advertising is purchased by foreign countries, while others worry that the law would be be hard to implement. (Google stopped running political ads in Washington state because its system couldn’t comply with the state’s online disclosure rules.)

Irony of ironies: The executive branch needs to “reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election.” How likely is this, really? Donald Trump is currently in the middle of an impeachment inquiry because he tried to pressure the president of Ukraine into investigating political rivals. It seems reasonable to believe that Trump will not be briefing the public about the dangers of attempted foreign interference anytime soon. 

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