We’re up against it. It’s Election Day, everyone is wound tight, and pretty much everyone looking at potential threat intelligence anticipates at least moderate unrest that could stretch from Election Day through to the inauguration.
I don’t even like writing that. I love my country, and I still hope this turns out to be the most wrong election prediction there has ever been, and the day after we’re all laughing and taking a masked walk to admire the autumn foliage.
I still don’t believe violence is the inevitable outcome. There is no reason for it to be. But the anticipation that it will be is pulling us in that direction. The catastrophic failure of leadership from the White House and a president who has systematically cheered on violence, labeled enemies, and undermined institutions leaves us in a dire spot. Everyone feels the stakes are impossibly high, and that they are about to lose their version of America. It’s not a great way to start the challenging times ahead.
The primary thing I want to emphasize is: most of the institutions we will need to rely on to short-circuit the craziness in the coming weeks are ready to do their jobs. We’ve seen that the FBI has good threat intelligence and visibility into groups planning extralegal actions and violence. We know the National Guard is organized and on standby and knows where they may be needed. We know CyberCom and the agencies responsible for tracking cyber threats and potential election disruptions are on point. We know there are communications between and among these groups to assess the overall landscape of threats, foreign and domestic.
This doesn’t mean things won’t happen. But I believe the people who need to step into that breech will.
The hope is that disruptions are only domestic and don’t have durability — that there are dispersed pop-up pockets of violence put down fast enough and decisively enough by law enforcement that it no longer seems like a fun game for the weekend fanboys.
What does this have to do with disinformation?
I’m not going to minimize how relatively unmooring the next weeks and months could be for America — but I’m also not going to engage in the kind of panic porn that is worsening the situation.
Part of seeing disinformation and conspiracies for what they are is knowing the landscape of possibility. You need to be prepared for what may happen, and what you might see, and what may come — because you need to not panic and amplify perceptions of unrest and potentially worsen any unrest. When we’re in this strange realm of potential political violence, amplifying bad information can lead to real harm — of individuals, of institutions and ideals, and of the objectives you aim to achieve.
We’re all on edge. The next few weeks, especially in the information domain, will require extraordinary calm, precision, and endurance.
We’re going to see things we’ve never seen before. We need to think through how we will react to them.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of some things you should be prepared for.
Attempts to throw out votes and perceptions of counting going wrong.
Americans have already voted early in record numbers — probably edging up to 100 million ballots cast before Election Day, or about 73 percent of the total votes cast in 2016. Part of this is because of the high interest in the election and voter mobilization efforts, and part of this is because states have expanded access to early voting to offset the potential risks of in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic. Certain categories of these early ballots are being targeted by Republican election lawyers to be disallowed or thrown out because they believe these votes favor Democrats (I won’t justify what they are doing with any more caveats than that, despite their anguished explanations. Is what it is, as the president would say.). In some cases, their efforts have resulted in election rules being changed after people have already voted, creating different sets of rules for voters in the same jurisdictions.
Expect a mess when it comes to counting. Most places will be fine. Where it is messy, mostly this will mean a slower process: county officials will be cautious and deliberate in counting votes and ensuring rules have been followed. Complaints will be filed and fought. Legal battles will be fought everywhere. To stop votes being counted. To ensure votes are counted. This will require those of us watching and following this to be patient. Don’t spread rumors about process or counting or missing ballots or found ballots if you do not understand the source. It’s fine to consume information in this space without engaging or amplifying any of it. Don’t amplify unfounded perceptions that the process has become illegitimate or corrupted. Let the lawyers work; let legitimate media be methodical in reporting. Viral stories that aren’t true will distract from the real story of what is happening around us. This will also require not amplifying or responding to the presidential tweets. If you notice mis or disinformation on counting happening, you can post your own message about it without amplifying false or misleading information. State the truth first. Count all the votes.
I just want to note again that there are both left and right efforts organized to “catalogue” voting and counting irregularities on Election Day. Please don’t amplify them unless you can cross-check the sourcing or have an official source supported by a campaign or officials. Eroding faith in the results is eroding faith in the results. Don’t contribute unless you are sure. There isn’t any evidence that fraud is real. There just isn’t. These stunts are about changing the results after the will of voters have been expressed.
The president may declare victory pre-emptively.
The president has already threatened to declare victory no matter what since only a “rigged election” can defeat him (he says). He may reject the results openly, or reject the results in specific states, or do his usual half-assed “people can decide for themselves” thing where he goes on Fox News and refuses to bat down a conspiracy or raises one himself and tries to say he doesn’t know the answer but people should look at it. The real danger will be not just that he does this, but if he offers a targeting list — says specific counties or states are trying to rig the election and points his self-mobilized army of supporters to harass, intimidate, disrupt, or attack these precincts. In all respects here: DO NOT AMPLIFY the president’s preemptive declarations or targeting strategies. Do not accelerate polarization via online means.
On Election Day and after, there may be self-mobilized militias, convoys, and other groups claiming they are “policing” the polls, cities, or other key areas.
We have seen test mobilizations of this activity over the past weeks — organized convoys convening on specific targets, blocking bridges and critical infrastructure. They have no authority to do this. Most of it will be for show — a display of “strength” meant to sway perceptions. Other groups may be disruptive. There may be marauding groups looking to express their political opinions with violence, as there have been around the edges of protests throughout the spring and summer, or groups who put themselves in position hoping a situation emerges in which violence is justified. There may be unclear reactions by law enforcement in some places. But in most others, they will do their job. Be cautious in amplifying either the perception that these groups have power or that law enforcement is failing to deter them. Wait for details on the story, look for more. Don’t call out irritating disruption as violence when they aren’t the same. If these groups target election facilities or courthouses, expose that their tactics are a show of weakness, not strength.
Toward the end of Election Day and after, there may be protests and demonstrations, clashes between groups, or clashes with law enforcement.
Factions of both sides are primed to believe any result but victory must be illegitimate. We will likely see protests no matter who wins. Throughout the spring and summer, we saw opportunistic violence around the edges of protests and demonstrations, including violent confrontations, looting, etc. There may be clashes between Americans. This will unnerve us more than clashes with law enforcement. Do not overplay the violence; always contextualize it. In general, I would not amplify this content. It’s too easy for perception to overtake reality. If you are participating in or organizing a peaceful protest, try not to be in direct confrontation with an opposing group.
This will be asymmetric.
The Trump people — and not just the MAGA convoy enthusiasts, but the more expansive definition of Trump supporters — are fired up, and prepared for an actual, physical fight. Whether Trump wins or loses, pro-Trump factions are primed for mobilization and action. Many are organized enough to be a menace, but not organized enough to have discipline. They will lose control if they start mobilizing after the election. It’s inevitable. What they want is a target to confront. It goes without saying: don’t give them one. Working in countries where the Kremlin is always messing around pretty openly in elections, we always joke: I yearn for a fight I can win with a gun (as opposed to this endless, murky political warfare). The convoy guys also yearn for a fight they can win with a gun. They are focused on the wrong thing. The fight with the guns, if it happens, is the wrong fight, with no victory.
There may be interference attempts by foreign actors.
This has largely dropped out of public discussion because of the internal mess, but foreign actors have laid the groundwork for potential disruptions, especially using cyber attacks and information operations (you can read more on some of this here). Mostly likely, the goal would be to amplify and accelerate unrest and chaos and uncertainty. What they want is panic. Don’t give it to them. On the cyber side, there is far better preparation — by CyberCom, the FBI, and DHS, in particular — than there was four years ago. On information — well, we’ll see. But do your part not to propel unverified rumors and panic across the internet; these are the seams foreign actors will exploit. Including…
There will be so many fake stories pushed online. Right wing media is going to be a mess.
There will be lies, anger, diversion narratives. Ignore it. This isn’t the time to tilt at windmills. Push truth and positive narrative, rather than joust with fiction.
The media will try hard, but they will drop the ball.
It will be impossible for media organizations to get everything right in the anticipated mess to come. Don’t pile on when it happens. It’s not solving the problem. Stay focused, don’t just stir the pot.
Whatever you do to stay calm — put down this bloody screen, go for a walk, do a puzzle, deep breathing, yoga, baking, binge-watching Fringe, re-read all 4100 pages of the Uhtred saga — do it. Once the pot boils, watching it doesn’t make it un-boil. Engage others in thoughtful ways. Check in on family and community. Help where you can. Have faith in America, project that faith, restore that faith one gesture at a time.
* * * * *
Patience. Faith. Calm. Easier said than done. We’re probably going to see a lot in the coming weeks. But just remember: One of the worst things Trump has done is turn everyone and everything into a caricature of themselves. MAGA LARPers, militia cosplay, the church of QAnon, left-wing extremists, “law and order” sheriffs — name any group or faction, and you can see how it has become a more cartoon version of itself during Trump’s presidency. His superpower is bringing out the absolute worst in everyone.
And we need to step out of those frames, and be outside, and reflect. Define ourselves. Choose our own adventure, from here on out. It starts tomorrow.