The Greatest Threat to American Democracy is the Violence Not the Vote

Sinan Aral is the Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and author of “The Hype Machine” about how social media disrupts our world.

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In late May, Boogaloo Bois member Ivan Harrison Hunter opened fire on the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct with an AK-47 while screaming “Justice for [George] Floyd” as he ran away. He bragged on Facebook that he “helped the community burn down that police station.” “I didn’t protest peacefully Dude,” he said “Want something to change? Start risking felonies for what is good.” When he was arrested, Hunter wore six loaded banana clips for an AK-47-style assault rifle on his vest and had an AK-47, two AR-15s and two pistols in his truck. Federal authorities charged him with traveling across state lines to incite a riot. He was the third member of the Boogaloo Bois, a group pushing to ignite a second civil war, to be charged in Minneapolis.

One week from the most consequential election in U.S. history, the greatest threat to our fragile democracy is not the vote, but the violence it could incite. The alleged extremist plots to kidnap the Governor of Michigan and attack Michigan’s capital building could just be the beginning. Russia and Iran have obtained voter data to spread misinformation and sow unrest on American soil. Threats of domestic terrorism are only likely to grow from now to the election and beyond. Several factors are combining to create the kindling that could catalyze a blaze of violence across the country. The spark that ignites that blaze could very well come from social media in the form of fake news and coordinated conspiracies plotted over Facebook or Twitter.

I’ve conducted some of the largest studies of fake news, filter bubbles and election interference and have investigated the impact of social media on democracy for two decades. In the upcoming election, we face one of the greatest challenges to democracy we’ve ever experienced.

COVID-19, social unrest and social media together create a perfect storm threatening the 2020 election and democracy. With uncertainty around the viability of in-person voting, questions about mail-in voting and violent political polarization, foreign actors and domestic terrorist groups will look to leverage the confusion caused by the pandemic and civil unrest to disrupt our democratic process. The pandemic precipitated an unprecedented economic downturn leaving many without jobs, income or a roof over their heads. Record breaking gun sales have created a run on guns and ammunition across the country. Most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff quarantined due to the coronavirus threat in the capital and unease is growing as President Trump refuses to state whether he will accept the election results.

These bizarre realities are facts not fiction. But the spread of false fictions could catalyze and accelerate violent extremism in the coming weeks. False news travels farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth online and much faster than attempts to debunk it. My book describes a sweeping and systematic Russian misinformation campaign targeting hundreds of millions of Americans ahead of the 2016 election. Large scale experiments suggest social media accelerates political polarization. But, while the scale and scope of Russia’s 2016 attack was dramatic, the threat of election manipulation and political polarization in 2020 is much higher. Our intelligence community is unanimously warning that Russia is not only actively intervening over social media to spread misinformation, but that they have innovated since their attack on our democracy in 2016. They are nudging rather than impersonating real Americans to spread misinformation to avoid platform policies against inauthentic speech. They’ve moved their servers to domestic soil to avoid surveillance from intelligence services limited in their ability surveil in the U.S. They’ve infiltrated Iran’s cyberwar department, perhaps to launch attacks made to look like they came from Tehran.

As I describe in The Hype Machine, during protests and confusion, amidst the smoke, fire and foreign interference, one week from the most consequential election of our time, social media is a real threat — not only to the election, but to the sanctity and peace of the election process. Research shows that “rumors form an essential part of the riot process.” They mobilize ordinary people to do what they would not normally do. They stoke violence through fear. They commit protestors to a line of action they would not normally take and can’t easily retreat from. The Pizzagate shooter was mobilized by social media misinformation. The right-wing extremist plot to kidnap a sitting Governor — a brazen conspiracy allegedly organized by a group that tested explosive devices and conducted reconnaissance of the Governor’s vacation home in preparation for the attack — was planned over Facebook. If the election is contested, fake news could escalate the contest to violence. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which fake news on social media catalyzes and coordinates domestic terrorism or mass violence in the U.S. during the election or after the votes are counted.

Social media companies are rightfully anxious. Just this weekend, Facebook enacted emergency measures to slow the spread of viral content and lower the bar for suppressing inflammatory posts. These types of measures are typically reserved for “at risk” countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar. They finally banned QAnon, banned new political ads in the week before the election and banned political advertising altogether after the election. They also created new rules preventing a campaign from claiming victory early and removing content questioning the safety and reliability of the voting process or attempting to suppress the vote. Twitter also moved to curb misinformation ahead of the election, notifying users when they are about to spread fake news, nudging users to add context and comments to all retweets between October 20th and election day, and adding contextual information to all trending topics. These are welcome changes. But, they may well be too little and have come too late. These steps should have been taken a long time ago, the platforms should be doing more and the measures shouldn’t just disappear after the election is over. We need sustainable solutions that harden our democracy to foreign and domestic threats for the long term.

Policymakers could also do more. If sweeping electoral reform bills like HR 1 are too contentious, surely we can achieve a bipartisan commitment to pass more targeted legislation like the FIRE Act, the SECURE Our Democracy Act, and the Voting System Cybersecurity Act. The release of extra federal funding would have helped states defend elections and voting systems, and risk-limiting audits could preserve the integrity of the vote itself.

Given the soft and delayed response of the social platforms and the politicians to date, the defense of our democracy has fallen largely to us, the American people. But, our defense of democracy won’t be mobilized by militias taking up arms. Our bulwark against domestic terrorism and foreign manipulation will be built online, on the keyboards and screens through which we access social media. To succeed, we will need to slow the spread of falsity and report credible threats of violence from social media to state and federal authorities.

When I see fake news shared on social media it is usually preceded by this preamble: “I don’t know if this is true, but it’s really interesting if it is…” We have to stop sharing such stories. Fake news is designed to be “interesting if it’s true,” but it’s not. The 80–20 rule applies to misinformation — a large fraction of it is easily debunked with a Google search and a few clicks. We have to remain critical of the information we read online because research shows the more reflective we are, the less we believe and share fake news. We also have to check our emotions because fake news is written to be shocking, salacious and anger inducing. It’s made to boil our blood and to hype us up. If you feel your emotional pulse accelerating, take a step back before you believe or share what you’ve read. And check the original source of the information. Fake news tends to come from fake sources masquerading as legitimate news organizations. In particular, we have to be on guard against incitements to violence and news that could incite or motivate that violence.

The election results probably won’t be known for days or weeks after the election is over. That is a very dangerous stretch of time during which misinformation could spark riots. We have to be vigilant. During this election the threat of violence and chaos is real and it could be catalyzed by social media. The defense of our democracy will take place online and our bulwarks against domestic terrorism and foreign manipulation will be built on Facebook and Twitter. The digital defense of our democracy is a responsibility we cannot abdicate. We must begin that defense today and continue it long after the election is over and for years to come.

Written by

David Austin Professor of Management at MIT, Director of the MIT IDE, Co-Founder of Manifest Capital & Author of The Hype Machine

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