How will online misinformation (“fake news”) affect America’s 2020 elections? It’s the kind of question that might send voters scurrying to the nearest stack of political science journals. But you’d be better off looking north—to Canada, and its impending federal elections, which will be held on October 21, 2019.
As a laboratory for anticipating the role of fake news in the 2020 U.S. elections, the Canadian elections could be highly instructive. (Full disclosure: I’m a dual citizen of the U.S. and Canada, and I live in Canada myself.)
In part that’s because Canada has taken steps to address the potential for misinformation in this election cycle, developing what Politico recently characterized as “the most detailed plan anywhere in the Western world to combat foreign meddling in its upcoming election.” The government’s plan includes transparency guidelines for political advertising online, the establishment of a cybersecurity task force dedicated to monitoring for potential election threats, and the allocation of $7 million Canadian dollars to digital and civic literacy initiatives. And if all that fails, the country also has a non-partisan panel that’s empowered to alert the public in the event of significant foreign interference in the election.
Paying attention to how these measures play out is absolutely essential for concerned Americans, because the growing role of the internet in politics makes it very hard for academic insight to keep pace with the speed of change. Three years after the 2016 elections, political scientists are still arguing over the extent to which fake news and online manipulation affected the outcome. To some extent, that’s the nature of the beast. As Samantha Bradshaw and Philip N. Howard note in “The Global Organization of Social Media Disinformation Campaigns:”
…data about disinformation campaigns are spotty at best. Many of these activities occur in secretive military contexts, or behind the proprietary walls of private actors. Thus, painting a complete picture of these activities online by government actors is extremely difficult, and there will be gaps in the data and cases collected.
But the challenges of analyzing online political manipulation are even more fundamental. Precisely because the internet re-invents itself so quickly, each election cycle takes place in what is effectively a brand-new online context. By the time academics have studied and digested the role of the internet in one election cycle, the ground has shifted in ways that make previously conclusions questionable, irrelevant, or downright preposterous.
It’s a problem that Internet researchers anticipated from the very beginning. Writing in 1998, as one of the very first political scientists to take the internet seriously, Bruce Bimber pointed out that:
…the Net has been a significant presence in American life for only a few years. Just as television did not exert its full influence on the practice of politics until the 1960s and 1970s, it is reasonable to expect that the full effects of the Internet will not be clear for years.
Not that this challenge has kept political scientists from trying. In a 2003 assessment of the Internet’s impact on civic engagement, the political scientists M. Kent Jennings and Vicki Zeitner took a close look at how political participation was affected by Internet usage—where that usage was defined by how respondents use “the World Wide Web, Usenet News, Listserves, chat rooms or other computer services to follow public affairs and politics.” The fact that several of these channels are now non-existent or marginalized (usenet, chat rooms, and, arguably, listservs) attests to the difficulty of assessing a constantly moving target.
That difficulty has led to some amusingly off-base predictions. Writing about online donations in the 2000 campaign, the political scientists Philip Paolino and Daron R. Shaw were skeptical about the potential of online fundraising for “outsider” candidates, noting that “the overall level of concern about the security of the web certainly limits its efficacy for this purpose.” Just as their conclusion went to press, Howard Dean broke out of the Democratic pack with an unprecedented online fundraising campaign.
A more common problem is the tendency to see each successive election cycle as the groundbreaking election when it comes to the relationship between the internet and politics. “[W]idespread Internet Access fundamentally changed the 2008 presidential race regarding fundraising, candidate interaction and, most importantly, messages heard by voters,” Ilaria Moschini wrote in the journal Il Politico. That might come as news to Paul S. Herrnson and colleagues, who wrote that “[t]he 2004 presidential campaign showed that the Internet can have dramatic effects on some candidates’ ability to raise campaign resources and organize activists.” And long before either of those articles went to press, Caroline J. Tolbert and Ramon S. McNeal concluded that “the Internet is affecting the political landscape in presidential elections”—based on an analysis of the elections of 1996 and 2000.
After twenty-three years researching and writing about the internet’s political impact, I’ve grown a little weary of these proclamations of newness. The very first book I ever found on digital campaigning was Gary W. Selnow’s Electronic Whistle-Stops, which was later reviewed by Carl H.A. Dassbach in Political Science Quarterly. All the way back in 1998, Selnow made a big deal of the fact that “the campaign of 1996 was the first in which enough voters and campaigns possessed a critical mass of equipment and software to make the Internet more than an academic tool or a novelty.” And yet that sense of novelty never really went away, which is why political scientists so often proclaim each election to be new territory when it comes to the interaction between the internet and politics.
And yet neither Selnow nor his successors were wrong: Each of these elections really was new territory, whether that newness was defined by the extent of internet involvement, the advent of blogs and YouTube, or the emergence of Facebook and Twitter. As a result, the study of each successive election is almost a tabula rasa, in which we have to grapple with the impact of technologies that were either unimagined or barely underway just a few years before.
Today, that challenge takes the form of wrestling with online misinformation—a challenge I’ll resist characterizing as unprecedented, even though it really is tempting to argue that these factors take the political significance of the internet to a whole new level. The experience of repeatedly encountering brand-new territory has left me not just skeptical of the hyperbole, but also skeptical of political scientists’ ability to inform our efforts at grappling with each successive online challenge. Their work tends to be useful only in retrospect.
Instead of looking to the carefully digested conclusions of political science, look north: Look at what Canada is doing now, just months ahead of her American cousins, and what that might portend for the election year ahead. While there have been some reports of disinformation and manipulation in this campaign via fake Facebook pages, “deep fake” videos, and Twitter bots, a research team recently concluded that the first weeks of the Canadian election cycle were “largely clean.”
But that conclusion came almost a week ago, and the election is still a week away. At the speed of internet politics, that’s an eternity.