Election interference reports start discussions on the legitimacy of our democratic processes

UH political science professor Ryan Kennedy said the form of election interference that gets the most attention is false information that’s passed around on social media. | Santiago Gaughan/The Cougar

Over the past few weeks, there have been reports of Russia and Iran attempting to interfere with the elections by intimidating voters and accessing voter information. 

Along with the reports, President Donald Trump and other elected officials have called into question the legitimacy of the voting process and election security.

“Interference in elections generally is not all that new,” said Ryan Kennedy, a UH political science professor.

Kennedy said attempting to influence election outcomes has been practiced whether through funding parties in a foreign election directly or through informative campaigns. Now there are multiple factors that can contribute to more convenient interference methods.

Social media, according to Kennedy, is one of these factors as it allows information, regardless of credibility, to be spread quickly.  The other two factors are the increased electronic use in the voting process and political polarization in recent years.

Kennedy said the form of interference that gets the most attention is false information that’s passed around on social media, such as conspiracy theories.

“Now it’s a hyper-partisan climate where people tend to be in these kinds of media bubbles,” said Kennedy. “Some of these things are able to gain credibility among particular subgroups in ways that they ordinarily wouldn’t.”

Kennedy said that although social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have gotten better at censoring false information, it’s not as simple to remove all of these accounts that pass around these kinds of messages.

“It’s really tough to basically play whack-a-mole with all of these different groups and organizations,” said Kennedy. “One of the most powerful things the government can do in terms of dealing with this kind of effort is simply not to amplify it.”

Kennedy mentioned that one of the major failures of elected officials is when they adopt false information and undermine the legitimacy of federal institutions. 

If users are uncertain whether information found on social media is true, Kennedy offered ways for voters to check the information they come across. 

“Rely on trusted news sources, don’t post these things that are from glorified blog sites,” said Kennedy. “Look to make sure whether or not it’s actually being reported by a group that abides by journalistic ethics standards.”

Kennedy also recommended the use of fact-checking sites when information doesn’t seem to add up. He said that these fact-checking websites sometimes have accounts on social media that post updates about new false information that’s going around.

With the false information about elections being the easier way to influence voter opinion, there are still other avenues to delegitimize the election process. However, these alternatives are not simple to achieve.

“The current election interference that we see, a lot of it is relatively cheap election interference,” said Kennedy. “In terms of directly hacking the elections, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility but that kind of election interference is much more difficult.”

Kennedy assured that there are many overseers of the election process and if there were to be any tampering with the vote count, it would be almost impossible to do so.

“Our democratic electoral systems are still fundamentally sound,” Kennedy said. “In terms of the actual count and following the rules as they stand, there’s no doubting that is the results.”

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