Truth on the Ballot: Fraudulent News, the Midterm Elections, and Prospects for 2020, a report of PEN America

“…it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it … anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”  Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe



Warning about the risk of fraudulent news and online disinformation becoming a normalized part of U.S. political discourse, this week PEN America released Truth on the Ballot: Fraudulent News, the Midterm Elections, and Prospects for 2020. The report provides a robust analysis of efforts to counter fraudulent news in the 2018 midterm election cycle, and stresses the importance of social media platforms, candidates and political parties dramatically stepping up efforts to keep fraudulent news from badly polluting the 2020 election cycle.

The 50-page Truth on the Ballot catalogs and evaluates the steps taken by internet platforms, government agencies, and political parties to curb the influence of fraudulent news in the aftermath of the 2016 election cycle; examines current legislative proposals to regulate advertising transparency online; parses the role fraudulent news played in the 2018 midterm election cycle; and offers recommendations to stakeholders on vital steps to combat fraudulent news while protecting free expression rights ahead of the 2020 elections.

With fraudulent news and online disinformation distorting public discourse, eroding faith in journalism, and skewing voting decisions, Truth on the Ballot offers a stark warning about the normalization of fraudulent news and disinformation as campaign tactics, sounding an alarm that such unsavory methods are becoming part of the toolbox of hotly contested modern campaigns.  Micro-targeting capabilities have weaponized disinformation, so that what might once have passed muster as simply a hard-edged campaign message in the public arena can now move with stealthy, laser-like efficiency to reach sub-segments of voters while remaining invisible to the wider public or opposing campaigns.

“Fraudulent news has become an insidious virus infecting our democracy, feeding prejudices, fanning misperceptions, and shaping voting behavior in ways that can distort election outcomes. We see disturbing signals that domestic political actors are beginning to view disinformation as a necessary evil, believing that they have little choice but to fight fire with fire as opponents and outside actors bring disinformation tactics into our elections,” said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America.

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“To avoid a second presidential election cycle tainted by grave doubts over the role of fraudulent news and information in slanting the outcome we need online platforms to double down their investment in expert human intervention to augment the still-developing capabilities of algorithms and artificial intelligence to detect and address fraudulent news without impairing the free exchange of ideas. Political parties and campaigns need to commit unequivocally to reject the use of fraudulent information as a campaign tool. This report is an alarm bell: We cannot allow fraudulent news to make truth a casualty of our politics.”

Truth on the Ballot builds on PEN America’s October 2017 report, Faking News: Fraudulent News and the Fight for Truth, which examined how fraudulent news is eroding truth-based civic discourse and constitutes a threat to free expression. At the time, the majority of public concern over fraudulent news fixated on foreign actors, including Russian disinformation agents and Macedonian clickbait farms. While foreign-originated disinformation remains a serious concern, Truth on the Ballot warns that domestic actors are increasingly experimenting with fraudulent news and disinformation as a bare-knuckled political tactic.

Truth on the Ballot underscores the need for increased transparency regarding the funding of political ads, analyzing steps that technology companies have taken to address the problem and judging them often important, but insufficient. Additionally, the report reviews some of the most significant examples of fraudulent news during the 2018 election cycle and discusses how such disinformation shapes public discourse.

In addition to recommendations for technology companies, legislators, and political groups, Truth on the Ballot contains the first-of-its-kind Model Pledge Against Fraudulent News, a call to action for candidates and political parties to denounce fraudulent news and disinformation, and forswear its use. The Pledge also serves as a tool to empower citizens to take action and hold their elected officials and aspirants for public office accountable.

Highlights of Truth on the Ballot include:

  • Analysis of the nature, volume, and impact of domestic and foreign fraudulent news and disinformation campaigns during the 2018 midterm elections and major recent political moments, including the 2017 special election in Alabama and the nomination hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh
  • Critical examination of the steps taken by three major platforms, Facebook, Twitter, and Google, to blunt the impact of fraudulent news in the run-up to the midterm elections, including revisions to their algorithms; increased transparency around political advertising; account shutdowns; and collaboration with political campaigns and government agencies
  • Overview of the evolving landscape of online disinformation, from Russian propaganda campaigns to domestic hyper-partisan actors
  • Recommendations for technology companies, political groups, legislators, and citizens, based on the bedrock idea that the most effective proactive tactic against fraudulent news is a citizenry that is well-equipped to detect, and reject, fraudulent claims
  • Call to legislators to establish a federal commission to research and analyze ways to combat the spread of disinformation
  • Call to social media platforms to establish and sufficiently support substantial teams of lawyers, advertising experts, linguists, graphics experts and election experts to augment still-developing and experimental artificial intelligence and algorithmic approaches and bring a trained, expert human eye to content in the lead-up to the 2020 elections
  • A model pledge against fraudulent news for elected officials, aspirants for public office, and political parties to commit to refraining from utilizing fraudulent news and to denouncing its use, even when it benefits them politically

The report is available HERE.

This post is courtesy of PEN America; Presidential Seal is in the public domain.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. It champions the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Its mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. 


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