Mark Haidar, Abtsam Saleh, Sam Doernberg, Jin Park
November 12th, 2020
This session was titled “Election Chaos.” In preparation for the session, the student fellows watched a recent event hosted by the Berkman Klein Center titled: “Election Chaos: Platform Preparations for the US Election“.
The talk featured Julie Owono, a lawyer and executive director of the Paris-based digital rights organization Internet Sans Frontieres, and evelyn douek, a lecturer of law and an S.J.D. candidate at Harvard Law School. It was moderated by Oumou Ly, Staff Fellow for the Assembly: Disinformation project. The discussion focused on how social media and internet platforms were anticipating and preparing for a variety of issues related to disinformation in the run-up to, and immediate aftermath of, the 2020 United States election.
Our session was conducted in the days following the election, and therefore, in anticipation of a drawn-out final electoral count, our goals were simple. We wanted to: a) discuss how accurate predictions for the 2020 election had been, and b) spur a cohort-wide discussion about election disinformation on social media.
We asked all student fellows to identify a piece of disinformation from the 2020 election that stood out to them. During our session, students shared with the fellowship group their thoughts on the life cycle of that disinformation (where did it originate, where was it found, its path to consumers, might it have been flagged by any platforms and if so why, etc).
We also focused on questions about platform interventions in the election cycle. How did platforms intervene? What did they do well? Where did they fall short and what could have been done better?
- Disinformation can be convincing! Many of the student fellows had initially questioned whether the posts they saw were real or false.
- Disinformation is frustrating! It can sow distrust, fear, and hopelessness among consumers of social media who recognize it as a problem, but who may lack the tools to address it themselves.
- It is difficult to control the life cycle of social media posts. Techniques such as friction and flagging can help, but once disinformation is spread widely enough, it is challenging to remove or rescind.
- Despite all the ‘doomsday scenarios’ about election integrity, Election Day itself was uneventful. It ran smoothly and was very secure overall, which may be attributable to preparation in advance.
The seminar-style session was invaluable for discussing a political event that sparks heightened emotions.Decentralizing the conversation helped participants to feel comfortable chiming in. We also owe a debt of gratitude to our resident expert, Oumou Ly, who provided context when necessary and helped to answer many interesting questions!