Principles and Policies to Counter Deceptive Digital Politics

Hamsini Sridharan | February 12, 2019

The aftermath of the 2016 election marked a widespread recognition of the sprawling problems posed by political bots, troll farms, fake social media accounts, networks of disinformation websites, deceptive digital advertising, and other efforts to manipulate public opinion.  However, policymakers in the United States have taken only minimal steps to address the underlying issues that now make political deception so pervasive online. In a new report, Ann Ravel and Hamsini Sridharan of MapLight and Samuel Woolley of the Institute for the Future outline more than 30 concrete proposals—all grounded in the democratic principles of transparency, accountability, standards, coordination, adaptability, and inclusivity--to protect the integrity of the future elections, including the pivotal 2020 U.S. presidential election. Rather than leaving technology companies and manipulative political actors to their own devices, the report brings the strengths of government and civil society to bear on the problem of digital deception.

View or download the full report here: Principles and Policies to Counter Deceptive Digital Politics

This platform spans recommendations in the areas of campaign finance; data usage and privacy; automated and fake social media accounts; global cooperation; and media and civic education, among others. It is divided into immediate policy proposals -- such as improving disclosure requirements for online political ads and creating a new government authority to investigate the true source of funding for digital political activity -- and systemic changes like building media literacy and civics into public education, learning from policy models around the world, and incorporating a civil rights perspective into product design.

Two features of the digital environment, anonymity and automation, have made deceptive digital politics especially harmful.  To counter the challenges posed by political actors posting misleading content from false or obscured identities and the spread of misleading information via automation, MapLight and IFTF provide a rubric for evaluating policy solutions based on their effectiveness promoting the democratic principles of transparency and accountability.

“Both the 2016 and 2018 elections have served as glaring reminders of the vulnerabilities in our democracy in the information age,” said Ann Ravel, former Chair of the Federal Election Commission and co-author of the report.  “We cannot respond to the challenges with paralysis and inaction. We must put in place protections now to safeguard our political process.”

“There’s no magic-bullet policy that is going to automatically safeguard our elections and wind back the clock to the era before digital communication was a primary feature of political campaigning,” added Samuel Woolley, Director of the Digital Intelligence Lab at the Institute for the Future and report co-author.  “We need our full society to be involved in responding to these problems.”