The Threat of Election Interference Depends on Us

March 16th, 2021

By Peter Mayer

There's a bulk of information flying around regarding the security of U.S. elections that can feel overwhelming. An array of concerns hung over the election: COVID-19, foreign election interference, voter suppression. These are serious problems that require a litany of solutions, but we, the American electorate, can help by remaining confident in our democratic process.

Russia's election interference playbook is all about deteriorating American confidence. The Russian government has been working to interfere in the election by influencing public sentiment. But those efforts pale when held up to an informed public. They hacked election systems in 2016 to call into question the integrity of the results. They spread misinformation through social media to inspire belligerence. Their main objective is to manifest civil strife and doubt. The best defense is to refuse to take the bait. If their efforts result in lost faith in elections, they will have accomplished their mission.

The government, the media, and the election industry are working for a more robust defense against election interference. Further work is necessary to make America a more difficult target for disruption. Social media companies need to put more effort into reducing fake accounts and deliberately misleading posts. They need to investigate how their algorithms encourage divisive content.

Defense against foreign interference also depends on strong leadership in government. The Russians don't need a conspiratorial agent if they have complicity from trusted American voices. Whether motivated by self-interest or willful ignorance, politicians who circulate misinformation make adversarial virtual attacks on America more potent. The success of foreign interference depends on leadership that acts responsibly with information. A responsibility that was woefully lacking in the Trump administration. Informed people are much harder to manipulate, and people who feel secure about their civic agency are less likely to lash out.

Media organizations have to be particularly conscientious in their coverage. Upholding the ethics of journalism depends on checking the credibility of sources. Restraint is also crucial; media organizations have to evaluate whether their reporting is in the public's interest. For example, Russian hackers released a mix of falsified and legitimate stolen documents immediately before the 2017 French presidential election. The French media largely ignored the leaks, ultimately diminishing the threat posed by the hacks.

As engaged citizens, our role is to be unflappable skeptics. We need to research the origins of our sources. We need to resist the impulse to react emotionally to every bit of information that comes our way. And finally, we will have to work to be respectful of one another, especially those we disagree with. You have to give respect to get respect. That doesn't mean don't stand up for what you believe in. It means that when someone opposes us, we don't instantly attack them.

Constructive debate and dissent build democracy. That's how the nation flourishes. The minute we close our minds to anything that looks different, we stop growing as a country. The most dangerous thing we can do is think we know everything and everyone else is wrong. The threat of disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks is real, but the severity of the outcome depends chiefly on our reaction.

Freedom in a democracy is maintained by having a government that represents its people. If that belief remains unshakable, then no one can inhibit each citizen's ability to shape the nation into something that embodies their principles. Efforts to reduce confidence in the vote, whether malicious or careless, only work if given credence by the electorate.

Antagonists like the Russians are counting on us being afraid and angry. They hope that if they throw a rock and hide their hands, we'll swing at the person in front of us. Please take part in our democracy, vote, engage in respectful debate, and think critically. Future elections, the welfare of our nation, and our role as a global leader for liberal democracy depend on it.

Peter Mayer is a first-year Master of Public Policy student specializing in national and global security. Before enrolling at Humphrey he worked as a lead manager for Lime scooters.