LISBON, Portugal, Dec. 4, 2020 /PRNewswire/ —

  • According to Alex Stamos, director of Stanford Internet Observatory, along with the usual election disinformation tactics – trying to mislead voters on the mechanics of casting their ballot, or trying to discourage them from voting altogether – this year’s US presidential election saw a new phenomenon: people attempting to call into question the election results.
  • Stamos, formerly Facebook’s chief security officer,  said that, overall, social media platforms did a better job at preventing foreign disinformation on their sites than they did during the 2016 election. Comparing them head to head this time around, Stamos said YouTube  was “probably the most problematic”, with the least comprehensive policies around election disinformation.
  • Speaking at 100,000-attendee online conference Web Summit, Stamos is part of a line-up that includes European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, tennis great Serena Williams and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

Compared to the 2016 US presidential election, social media platforms did much better at preventing foreign disinformation  during this year’s election cycle. The bigger problem was domestic disinformation, said Alex Stamos, director at Stanford Internet Observatory.

Even though platforms improved, Stamos – who was Facebook’s chief security officer until 2018 – said that YouTube was the most problematic platform.

“The largest influencers get the least amount of enforcement, and we need to invert that,” he said.

Stamos’s comments came during  an interview with Eizabeth Dwoskin, Silicon Valley correspondent at the Washington Post, during the 100,000-attendee Web Summit.

Elaborating on YouTube’s challenges this election cycle, Stamos pointed out that influencers livestreamed far more than four years ago. Live video is especially hard to fact-check in a meaningful way, especially when influencers tried to erroneously claim election victory for Trump while votes were still being counted.

“Some of these people have live audiences that approach the daytime viewership of CNN, so you’re talking about YouTube effectively operating as a cable network,” he said.

Famously – and much to the dismay of some of its creators – YouTube has a three-strikes rule in place for inappropriate content on the platform. But Stamos said election disinformation wasn’t counted as a strike for some reason. “So that is a core problem with them”, and fundamentally different from the policies at Facebook and Twitter, he said.

To be able to track election security, Stamos put together a coalition called the Election Integrity Partnership, whose work began months in advance of election day. In previous elections, he said, disinformation tended to come in the form of bad actors trying to mislead voters on the mechanics of casting their ballot, or trying to discourage them from voting altogether. This year, he and his team knew a new phenomenon would be people trying to call into question the election results themselves. It’s a tactic that was telegraphed by President Donald Trump for months as a way to call into question Joe Biden’s presumptive victory.

“It’s one of the few things he’s been really honest about,” Stamos said of Trump’s strategy.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was a  “spaghetti thrown to the wall of various ideas of ‘this is why the election’s being rigged’,” Stamos said. And it’s important to point out that this wasn’t a grassroots push but an organised, coordinated push.

Stamos, during the Web Summit interview, also pointed out that there is no government agency with the authority and know-how to  look at disinformation when it appears to be domestic,  whereas there are several to look after foreign threats.

He doesn’t advocate for a ministry of information that tells the platforms what’s true and false. At a minimum, Stamos said, the government should be able to know what’s going on and have a centralised ability to do what his coalition did in checking over platforms – even if they don’t then turn around and tell the platforms what to do.

More transparency about the security of polling machines themselves is a big need as well going forward. Stamos said: “You don’t build perfectly secure systems. We’ve never done that before as a species, but we need to have confidence that the process is good and that you have processes on the backend, like paper ballots, that make it very difficult to steal an election.”

About Alex Stamos

Alex Stamos is working to improve the security and safety of the internet through his teaching and research at Stanford University. He previously served as chief information security officer at Yahoo and Facebook.

About Web Summit

In the words of Inc. Magazine, “Web Summit is the largest technology conference in the world”. Forbes says Web Summit is “the best tech conference on the planet”, Bloomberg calls it “Davos for geeks”, Politico “the Olympics of tech”, and the Guardian “Glastonbury for geeks”.

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