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From deepfakes to fake news, an array of influences aim to shape voter decisions

As the U.S. prepares for a hugely consequential election, numerous forces are lining up to potentially manipulate voters. USC experts discuss the barrage of influences on today’s voting public.

Gone are the days when voter influences involved a candidate stump speech, a piece of direct mail, a TV ad or a pamphlet.

Today, the forces that influence us are far more complex and pervasive, powered by cybersecurity threats and foreign operatives, U.S. conspiracy sites, digital fakes and propaganda-rich social media echo chambers — all playing upon a peculiarly fickle human mind that culminates in a decision when a voter casts a ballot, according to USC experts.

This election, simply reaching the polls to cast a vote is complicated. Foreign agents, bots, inaccurate tweets and White House attacks on the validity of elections can confuse voters. Cyberattacks can reach voters by email and phone, sending misleading information about polling places or mail-in deadlines, creating long lines at polling locations or shutting down polls in targeted communities. The risk of COVID-19 deters people from going to the polls, as the Spanish Flu did in elections a century ago.

But what makes this year’s election truly unique is the widespread use of mail-in ballots.

“Today, forces are at work to make people not participate in the election by questioning the integrity of elections and saying the system is broken,” said Christina Bellantoni, professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and director of the Annenberg Media Center. “With so few people undecided about the upcoming presidential election, influencing just a handful of people on the margins can sway an election.”

Cyberattacks are likely to target the 2020 election

Clifford Neuman, a scientist at the Information Sciences Institute and the Computer Science Department of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, says the U.S. election process is particularly vulnerable to manipulation due to a convergence of computer dependency, polarized politics and protections regarding freedom of expression.

Cyberattacks will target all aspects of this year’s election.

Clifford Neuman

“Computers are used throughout the election process, and cyberattacks will target all aspects of this year’s election,” said Neuman, who directs the USC Center for Computer Systems Security. “Computers are used for voter registration, accepting political contributions, for get-out-the-vote activities and practically all communication by campaigns. Journalists covering the election use computers to gather information and to publish their stories. Social media provides a medium for the spread of information and misinformation, along with the information needed to target messaging to like-thinking segments of the citizenry.”

Neuman has presented on cyberthreats and attacks for the USC Cybersecurity Election Initiative, a series of state-by-state workshops — supported by Google — that raise cybersecurity awareness among election and campaign officials.

He advised that paper ballots are critical this year, amid an increase in cyberattacks on elections systems. “U.S. adversaries can manipulate elections by targeting the ballot recording and counting infrastructure,” he said. “The threat is very concerning.”

Never been easier for technology, misinformation to influence voters

New and remarkably easy-to-make deepfakes are increasingly common, too. These fraudulent yet persuasive videos can be made in a few hours on a $2,000 computer by a competent programmer and posted to social media networks, said Wael AbdAlmageed, professor at USC Viterbi and the Information Sciences Institute. He added that USC has developed state-of-the-art misinformation detection technology that can spot more than 96% of fraudulent videos in almost real time.

“Deepfakes have great power,” AbdAlmageed said. “They are a significant and growing risk to elections and democracy. There is now so much visual manipulation that the whole notion of ‘seeing is believing’ is not valid anymore. Deepfakes are dangerous and can sway an election.”

Peculiarities of the human mind render people especially vulnerable to manipulation; it helps explain the proliferation of efforts to manipulate elections.

We are much more vulnerable to misinformation than we used to be.

Norbert Schwarz

“We humans are terrible at discerning truth from untruth,” said Norbert Schwarz, a Provost Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Marshall School of Business. “People are persuaded by messages that are simple, easy to process and agreeable. The more attention and effort it takes to process information, the more people look for ease in message assimilation. What’s easy to process becomes a proxy for truth.”

Schwarz said that the proliferation and fragmentation of media sources floods people with messages that can be difficult to sort.

“We are much more vulnerable to misinformation than we used to be,” said Schwarz, the co-director of USC Dornsife’s Mind and Society Center.

A more splintered media landscape mean tribal influences reign

Indeed, big changes in media leave people confused.

Many distrust the news media, in part because some journalists veer toward opinion on their social media channels more than ever before. TV networks or newspapers used to provide a common narrative upon which to build American political consensus.

Bellantoni said that fake news can sway voters, such as the viral video on social media suggesting partisan postal workers could destroy ballots that indicate someone’s voter registration on the envelope.

So what’s a voter to do? Increasingly, Americans retreat inside their own tribal groups and information bubbles.

Schwarz said that people now shape their information diet to the exclusion of anything they don’t want to hear, sometimes resulting in fact-free realities. But this is dangerous, he said, because democracy in which people can’t agree on facts, or people have alternative facts and realities, is not viable.

We are becoming a tribal country, and tribal identities shape our votes today.

John Matsusaka

John Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at USC, said that people have long voted according to partisan orientation, but what’s changed is partisanship has become a bigger part of people’s identity. He is the executive director of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at USC and a professor at USC Marshall and the USC Gould School of Law.

“American identity politics has changed to where people don’t vote according to the identity of their church, union or job anymore,” he said. “People decide how they vote by their partisan identity, which is often more important to them than the issues. We are becoming a tribal country, and tribal identities shape our votes today.”

The result is partisanship has become a bigger part of people’s identity, which means they see the opposing camp as the wrong kind of Americans, Matsusaka said. Yet democracy depends on political compromise, which he said is vanishing as the political center crumbles.

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From deepfakes to fake news, an array of influences aim to shape voter decisions

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