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Facebook and Other Tech Giants Gird for Chaotic Election

13/08/2020 12:12am

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By Dustin Volz and Emily Glazer 

Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Twitter Inc. have discussed with federal officials how the social-media platforms can prevent the spread of misinformation in the days before and after the election, after the U.S. intelligence community warned of foreign interference and President Trump called the vote's integrity into question.

The conversations are designed to address problems that may arise from across the political spectrum and have included the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and intelligence agencies, according to people familiar with the matter.

They have been shaped by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which is expected to result in far more people voting by mail than in previous elections, making it unclear how long it will take to have final election results.

The discussions have grown more urgent, the people said, as President Trump has repeated his warning of likely vote-by-mail fraud. In late July, for example, he tweeted to his nearly 85 million followers: "2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???"

The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Russia has undertaken a broad effort to damage Democrat Joe Biden's bid for the presidency, while China prefers that President Trump not win re-election, a senior intelligence official said recently.

The concern among officials and social-media companies is that any delay in declaring a result or widespread problems with mail-in voting could trigger the spreading of false stories about how the votes are being counted.

The broader rollout of mail-in voting will test states' abilities to count votes quickly and accurately. Studies show absentee-voter fraud has been rare in prior elections. But politicians in both parties have sometimes been emboldened by delays in certifying results in past elections to speculate about foul play.

Among the possibilities being discussed at Facebook and other tech platforms are putting in place procedures to act more quickly on misinformation, because false posts can sometimes exist online for hours before platforms take them down, said people familiar with the discussions.

Facebook, for instance, is looking at updating policies related to the time between voting and when results are announced, one of the people said. It is also examining potential product updates through its Voting Information Center and additional labels added to posts from politicians, the person said.

Matthew Morgan, general counsel for the Trump campaign, said that Democrats were "trafficking in conspiracy theories and hypotheticals" and that Mr. Trump's concerns stemmed from states with little experience in mail balloting rushing to adopt the method.

"Democrats are trying to undermine the integrity of our election mere months before Election Day by hastily implementing chaos-ridden universal vote-by-mail schemes in states that have no experience or infrastructure to support these systems," Mr. Morgan said.

The National Security Council said in a statement that the Trump administration doesn't tolerate foreign election interference and that it was working with states, social-media firms and election vendors "to protect the integrity of the 2020 elections."

Representatives for Facebook, Twitter and Google said they are working closely with election officials and industry peers to safeguard the process, including by strengthening policies and procedures that were put in place after the 2016 election.

Democratic Party officials have pressed Facebook on similar subjects, including in a late July meeting when representatives of campaign committees asked the company for assurances that it would intervene if Mr. Trump or others promoted misinformation about the outcome during the counting of votes, according to people familiar with the conversation.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has convened a series of high-level meetings over the past several months to discuss the company's potential response to election-related misinformation, a person familiar with the matter said.

At an internal Facebook employee Q&A on Aug. 6, Mr. Zuckerberg said the company is "sort of in an unprecedented position" given that election results could be unknown for days or weeks, according to the person. BuzzFeed News earlier reported on the meeting.

Chief among the issues, said several current and former officials from different agencies, were Mr. Trump's repeated attacks on the security of voting by mail and his suggestions that election results could be tampered with because of the potential effect such messages could have on public confidence in the outcome. Some current officials working on election security said they consider such messaging from the president to be a more significant threat than efforts by foreign countries to undermine the election's integrity.

A Wall Street Journal review of Mr. Trump's tweets dating back to 2012 found more than 110 instances of the president claiming widespread illegal voting, asserting an election or primary was rigged, or that voting by mail would allow for rampant fraud. More than half of those tweets were from this year, with the most of them concerning mail balloting.

Experts in both election security and foreign disinformation said Moscow's efforts to sow division and undermine faith in U.S. democracy have continued and evolved since 2016, moving away from automated, spamlike content and toward more-refined efforts to seed disinformation content on websites presented as authentic.

Clint Watts, a former FBI official and a research fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said that Mr. Trump's direct attacks on the election's integrity represented a different problem.

"Rewind four years: The Russian could never have pushed this volume or intensity of disinformation into our election space that comes directly from the president," Mr. Watts said.

Trump administration officials at times have faced the dilemma of trying to shore up public confidence in the election process, including vote-by-mail balloting, without provoking a reaction from Mr. Trump that undermines the effort, according to current and former officials.

Chris Krebs, the top cybersecurity official at the Department of Homeland Security, urged last week in a speech at the Black Hat cybersecurity conference that the public be calm in expecting delayed reporting of results.

"The last measure of resilience in the 2020 election is going to be an informed, patient voter," Mr. Krebs said at the conference. "It's going to take time to count the vote, whether it's absentee ballots coming in, whether it's longer lines. Whatever it takes, it's going to take a little bit more time."

--Jeff Horwitz contributed to this article.

Write to Dustin Volz at dustin.volz@wsj.com and Emily Glazer at emily.glazer@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 12, 2020 18:57 ET (22:57 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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