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How Tech and Election Officials Can Protect Elections Online

Tech companies can be a force for good around elections. Their scale allows them to reach hundreds of millions of Americans, and their agility and resources enable them to adapt to emerging situations in real-time. When working to their full potential, tech companies can connect Americans to their local governments, make the complex and varied processes around voting comprehensible and transparent, and help restore Americans’ faith in elections. To achieve all this, tech companies should collaborate with election officials to communicate official information that voters need and to mitigate the harms, such as false information and harassment, that can occur on their respective platforms.

Election officials have a role to play in combating mis- and disinformation by being prepared early to combat false narratives and ensuring they are not accidentally amplifying those narratives. Officials also should be primed to work with tech companies as well as traditional media to disseminate authoritative information.

Although not every election official’s needs are the same – many have distinct asks for each platform — the following represents a set of general recommendations that all platforms and officials can adopt as they prepare for elections in 2022 and beyond. These recommendations are derived from conversations with state and local elections officials across the country – including a threat ideation exercise hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center that involved election officials, federal officials, and tech companies. The exercise brought together these stakeholders to game out various scenarios and record responses; it built upon past experiences and drew on best practices that some platforms already employ.

Collaboration between tech companies and election officials has been fundamentally important in past cycles and will remain an integral part of defending and promoting American democracy. Although the challenges in coming election cycles will look different, early, proactive communication and constant collaboration will allow tech companies and election administrators to meet them head-on. Now is the time for tech companies and officials to invest in these critical relationships to protect our elections on and offline.

Recognize that future cycles will look different

The 2020 election cycle taught tech companies and election officials important lessons about working together, and those lessons remain relevant in this midterm election cycle. Some trends from 2020, including rampant false information and online and real-life harassment of election officials, have only intensified in the years since. Persistent questioning of the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election created an atmosphere of mistrust that will make conducting future elections exceptionally difficult.

Instead of having a single federal race commanding attention, diverse ballot contests – each conducted under a particular state or territory’s election code – will provide more targets for bad actors to develop false narratives. Similar fracturing exists in the online media environment. Bad actors are no longer focusing on the largest tech platforms; they are utilizing a broad spectrum of niche tools. Additionally, users share information with smaller groups in closed messaging apps, post content meant to disappear after a day, or engage on live platforms like Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, and podcasts. Tech companies must work with election administration partners and other companies to address false information in a more holistic way, as this information migrates between platforms.

Engage early

Time is an extremely valuable resource for election officials. They never have enough, especially in the days and weeks before an election. Unfortunately, there can be a mismatch between the high-speed development cycles of tech companies and the realities of the elections calendar. Often, tech road maps are created only about six months to a year out, which is too late to do the in-depth resource building that safeguards election integrity. Individual products are planned and launched on even shorter timelines.

Rapid, agile development is a point of pride for tech companies, but these just-in-time launches can hinder efforts to amplify correct election information. We find that it takes a long and sustained effort to educate voters on the process and so starting only weeks ahead of Election Day does not give enough time to do just that. Long before voters think about an election, officials begin planning and executing administrative duties. In the 2022 cycle, many states began these activities well ahead of statewide primaries. For tech companies to be supportive partners, they must engage with election officials as soon as possible. Earlier engagement gives election officials time to discern and provide feedback on plans for strengthening tech products. Early collaboration also gives officials time to prepare themselves to work alongside companies in efforts to get voters the authoritative information they need. In addition, individual relationships with state election offices, as well as state and national associations, are beneficial in connecting tech companies to election administrators.

Tech companies should plan effective engagements with election officials in support of the 2024 presidential election. After a typical election night, election offices move into a post-election period lasting from November through December and, in some cases, into early January. Assuming the same happens after the midterms, we expect that during this period, administrators will focus on canvassing, certification, recounts, and audits. Beginning in January, most states move into their respective legislative sessions. Particularly after a statewide election, state officials focus on election legislation, so state and local election officials will create their legislative agendas while caucuses in the legislature do the same.

By fall of 2023, full-scale planning for the 2024 primary and general elections will be underway, in addition to any local or statewide races being held in November 2023. For states with early primaries, candidate filing will have already begun and the 2024 cycle will officially be underway by December 2023. To avoid a rush into 2024, tech companies should engage election officials with innovative products and potential partnerships in early 2023.

Ahead of primary elections, officials will be busy creating or adjusting precincts, finding polling places, recruiting and appointing election workers, and in some cases canvassing petitions. States with early primaries receive a short respite before the November election calendar picks up, but states with later primaries will have no breaks between April and November because the two calendars overlap. From September through Election Day, election officials in every state will be working long hours to ensure ballots are printed and mailed and staff are trained and in place. They also will be working to ensure that election processes run smoothly. And officials will do all this while ensuring that voters have accurate information about every step in the process. If tech companies engage beforehand, they will be valuable partners in getting official information to voters, while also countering false information.

Prepare responses before they are needed

A distinct but equally important aspect of planning is determining how to respond to emerging events. There is no way to predict all moments of crisis in an upcoming election cycle. When the Russian military invaded Ukraine, tech companies made quick decisions navigating a complex crisis, balancing the need to limit the spread of propaganda with the need to be a nonstate source of information.

Although the challenges tech companies need to navigate with U.S. elections may not be on the same life or death scale, they will have to balance similarly complex factors. Companies must square their platforms’ roles as vehicles for engagement and conversation around elections with the risk that bad actors can use their platforms to sow distrust and division. They must also manage more specific and acute threats. For example, if someone threatens violence at a polling place, companies will need to balance conveying the information voters need to keep themselves safe with unnecessarily spreading fear.

All these decisions are fraught and often lack a clear answer, but tech platforms can increase their chances of navigating these challenges by planning immediately. At every level, companies should work through potential scenarios as soon as possible and develop plans for responses before they are needed. Regularly practicing threat ideation exercises helps companies understand how foreign and domestic bad actors use their platforms and products to push disinformation. Working with their election administration counterparts to explore scenarios helps companies make sure platforms and election officials are ready to respond swiftly and effectively.

It is equally imperative to determine lines of communication with election administrators. Tech companies should work now to ensure that, when a situation develops, election officials have a path to quickly contact the relevant internal teams and pinpoint the representatives they should contact to provide context or understand the truth on the ground. Building strong multidirectional communication pipelines will allow platforms to handle whatever arises.

Know the difference between bad actors’ intentional spreading of false information and news stories that need corrections

The growth of fringe media from across the political spectrum has frayed the electorate’s trust and created a difficult environment to boost authoritative information. Stories based in social media posts can spread rapidly, with some eventually being picked up by local and national media. This is not always an intentional attack; nonetheless, it can damage election integrity and trust in institutions. Reconciling the difference between participatory yellow journalism versus honest mistakes by media outlets helps in formulating appropriate responses to news stories.

Forming productive and close relationships with local media is essential for both election officials and tech companies. This way, stories can be reviewed quickly, questions can be answered, and the record can be corrected. These responses can then be used in products on social media platforms, linking to correct information.

Be sure to confirm the credibility of threats as well as the threats’ source

Election offices and workers receive countless threats and reports of false information every day, with some more alarming than others. When assessing a threat, first try to confirm the credibility of the threat as well as the source. This can be done by working with law enforcement officials and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CSA). If the threat is on social media, report the post, work with platform representatives to identify the source as best as possible, and have the post removed.

Remember that it is not possible to address every piece of MDM (Mis/Dis/Malinformation)

The ability to combat every false piece of information leveled at an election office is unfortunately impossible. Not only is it difficult to track down the sources and counter the claims, but responses might also provide a sounding board to trolls and attackers. The best course of action is to respond to MDM after completing a risk analysis, then boost the correct authoritative information instead.

Work with community groups to boost authoritative information

Community groups, such as religious institutions and trusted local nonprofits, can be a valuable resource to spread voting information in local jurisdictions. Cultivating relationships with these organizations and ensuring they are armed with the correct information will assist group members in learning correct voting options, times, and guidelines.

Create working relationships between tech companies, election officials, federal officials, and civil society groups

These groups should have open lines of communication to report issues, boost authoritative content, and monitor sources of misinformation. Federal agencies such as CISA perform the bulk of monitoring tech platforms’ cybersecurity threats from foreign and domestic actors, as well as provide security resources for election officials. Working relationships like these are vital for protecting our elections; cultivating more of them would lead to better crisis communications lines.

Election officials and tech companies should rely on CISA resources

CISA has compiled resources for elections on cybersecurity and electronic infrastructure. These resources include security walkthroughs for election offices, technology checks, and the Election Security Resource Library, which has infographics, guidelines, fact sheets, and easily accessible reports. Tech companies may use CISA’s resources on rumor control, MDM, and the MDM Resource Library. Making direct connections with officials at CISA creates a public image of trust and security, while also improving internal resources.

Command centers operated by federal representatives, IT workers, and election officials can work continuously to mitigate harm to cybersecurity

Few countywide tech and cybersecurity command centers for elections exist in the United States, and the ones that do are in more populous counties, such as Maricopa County, Arizona. Creating command centers for security and misinformation threats could help cover gaps in security across their respective counties and provide resources to election officials on the ground at offices and the polls. This solution is not suitable for some jurisdictions, and officials should keep in mind the levels of sophistication based on county size and individual needs when assessing the need for a command center.

Policies should be transparently communicated

Election product launches are not the only areas where tech companies need to clearly communicate with election officials. To do their work effectively, election officials need support from tech companies in the form of clear and upfront communication around policies in a variety of areas:

  • Content policies: There is a consensus among tech companies that election-related MDM is a critical concern that requires special attention. Most platforms have some form of policy to prevent the spread of election misinformation and interference – if a platform does not have one, creating one must be a priority. Existing platform policies have evolved over multiple election cycles: In the three months before the November 2020 election, Facebook and Twitter updated their policies twice. Election officials do not have the bandwidth to constantly monitor platform policies, so it is important that platforms keep officials up to date on current policies and policy changes.
  • In the current MDM environment, election officials have the on-the-ground experience to quickly identify false narratives spreading online, and they need to be empowered to flag these when they see them. Tech companies should ensure that they have a pipeline for receiving reports from election officials and that the mechanisms are socialized with election officials. If the platform has a “trusted flagger” program that election officials are eligible for, the company should make sure the officials are enrolled now – a step that will be vital for success in November. The goal of such a program is to prioritize reports from officials in the company’s review queue. Each platform must still evaluate and determine whether a piece of content violates its own policies.
  • Verification: One tool for combating misinformation is helping voters identify authoritative sources of election information. If a tech platform has a mechanism for verifying users, it should ensure that it has a clear and straightforward process for verifying election official accounts. The company also should make efforts to communicate this process to election officials and their associations. State election offices, as well as national associations like the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) and the National Association of State Election Directors (NASED), can help to facilitate these communications.
  • Advertising: Companies can help election officials by clearly communicating guidelines for paid advertising well in advance of the first primaries. Although not all jurisdictions utilize paid ads, some states or localities employ this strategy to reach voters. As tech companies sought to manage the need for transparency and combat election interference, many limited, banned, or instituted additional requirements to run political advertising. Ads purchased by election agencies are not partisan, but companies did consider them political because they are related to the election itself. Many of the platforms took this step because of guidance from the Federal Elections Commission, which considers ads about things such as voter registration to be a “federal election activity.” Some election officials, unaware of the additional rules or requirements to run these ads, found out at the last minute that campaigns they had planned would require additional steps to be approved, or in some cases could not be run in time for the election at all. Regardless of the decision that companies make about ads from election agencies, communicating requirements as early as possible ensures that election administrators can plan to use their resources most efficiently. Moreover, if a platform is going to implement additional steps before an ad can be run, they should also have adequate customer service assistance to help election officials navigate the process in a timely fashion.
  • Security: Election officials are increasingly under threat. In the wake of the 2020 election, election officials at every level, as well as their families, have received death threats, sometimes leading them to seek police protection or leave their homes. Several have shut down their social media after being deluged with threatening messages. Personal information of election officials and their families, including photos, home addresses and phone numbers, was collected and shared online, enabling further harassment on- and offline. Tech companies can create resources to help election officials protect themselves and secure their accounts and information online. Tech companies should also ensure that election officials have access to clear and up-to-date policies on platform harassment.

Collaborating with election officials to design great products

Tech companies can be valuable partners for election officials. With hundreds of millions of users, tech companies have a reach that election officials cannot match. By helping to amplify official election information, tech companies can make sure that voters have the information they need.

Election officials can offer nuanced understandings of the processes that produce products to aid voters, and their feedback can help ensure effective product design. Offering election administrators the opportunity to review content and language can help reduce error and voter confusion, but these interactions are most efficacious well before voting occurs for the primaries and general election. Wherever possible, companies should ensure that products link voters back to official government sources for more information.

Great voter engagement products recognize that most aspects of elections in the United States are not one-size-fits-all. Registration deadlines, early voting, mail voting opportunities, ballot return deadlines, and policies on voting eligibility will vary by state, and it is vital to take these differences into account when planning product launches. For example, information on voter ID requirements or the restoration of voting rights to people with a felony conviction can vary widely across states, so making sure the information is clear and accurate and that voters can see the information that applies to them is critical. Ensuring that product implementations point voters to their respective local election official if they have questions will help to ensure that they can get the specific information they need to cast their ballot.

Communicating with election officials about product launches is no less important. Even the most well-intentioned launch has the potential to cause issues for election officials if they are unaware of how it will be implemented. If a product will drive significant traffic to an election office website or voter registration platform, it is crucial to let the office know as far ahead of time as possible. Letting them know the night before, while better than nothing, likely means election officials will be unable to incorporate the traffic into their planning. Wherever possible, companies need to ensure they provide the greatest amount of advanced notice. What may be a small amount of traffic to a tech company can be a significant overload to a government office.

Additionally, it is crucial that election officials have a clear path to report any errors. If something goes wrong, eagle-eyed election officials can for example quickly identify an incorrect start time for early voting and help get the information corrected, but only if they know how to flag the problem for someone who can resolve it. Tech companies must have a plan for quickly handling feedback from election officials. In addition, a strong plan includes a regularly monitored feedback mechanism for the public and a plan for how to confirm that information with the election office – this can help the platform stay on top of rapidly changing information, such as voting hours on Election Day extended by court order.

Adopt an “always on” approach

Elections are not always over on election night, a lesson that was brought home in 2020 when escalating disinformation about the election spiraled out of control, leading to the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and to death threats directed at election workers across the country. Tech companies’ election efforts cannot end on election night, either. The companies must continue to enforce content and security policies and engage with the election community in the post-election period. Companies should be willing to participate in retrospective analysis with election officials to identify areas of strength and space for improvement. It is important to stay engaged with election officials concerning efforts to protect democracy and implement an “always on” strategy recognizing that elections are constantly happening across the country.

While nationwide elections happen only every two years, thousands of local elections occur annually. Tech companies have many opportunities throughout the election cycle to encourage Americans to participate in our democracy: registering to vote, signing up as an election worker, or even running for office. Tech companies should also recognize that the need to inform Americans about how elections work, and to combat false narratives, are evergreen.

Conclusion

Election officials have extremely limited resources, especially in terms of communications. Getting authoritative information to voters has proven to be difficult, especially in the wake of ever-evolving misinformation, making officials’ efforts feel minimal.

Moreover, officials are facing unprecedented threats of harassment and potential violence. In addition to the recommendations listed in this report, the threat ideation exercise held discussions about the role of law enforcement at the polls and standards of conduct for poll workers and observers.

Tech companies have ramped up their democracy efforts tenfold over the past decade, and now is not the time to back away from these efforts. With their resources, tech companies can help fill the gaps and assist election officials in prioritizing authoritative information, creating a fruitful partnership for future elections.

With U.S. democracy under siege, our hope is that tech companies and election officials will use these recommendations to improve their elections products, internal policies, and democracy-focused projects.

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