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The US election may not have been ‘stolen,’ but if this had happened in any other nation, America would brand it illegitimate

The 2020 presidential election shambles will go down in history as the event that exposed the fallacy of America’s democracy and made a mockery of its notion of free speech about politics in the eyes of the world.

On the night of November 3, as the results from largely ‘in-person’ votes were tallied across the nation, by all appearances, it looked as if President Donald Trump was headed toward a resounding victory against his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. Then a water pipe broke in the arena where the Fulton County, Georgia election results were being tallied, prompting a delay in the counting of mail-in ballots. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, election officials stopped counting mail-in ballots at 9.30pm on election night, resuming the tally at 9.00am the next morning. In Detroit, poll watchers were locked out of the vote counting room, raising concerns about transparency as election officials processed tens of thousands of mail-in ballots.

By the morning of November 5, with the counting still underway, President Trump tweeted out “STOP THE COUNT!”, followed soon by a second tweet: “ANY VOTE THAT CAME IN AFTER ELECTION DAY WILL NOT BE COUNTED!”

The interesting thing about this second tweet is that it was blocked from immediate viewing by Twitter staff, who posted their own message, noting that “Some or all of the content shared in this tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic process.” Anyone who wanted to read Trump’s tweet had to click a link, which displayed the tweet along with a warning: “Some votes may still need to be counted.”

Both links led the reader to a page outlining Twitter’s ‘Civic Integrity Policy,’ which declared that one “may not use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes. This includes posting or sharing content that may suppress participation or mislead people about when, where, or how to participate in a civic process. In addition, we may label and reduce the visibility of tweets containing false or misleading information about civic processes in order to provide additional context.”

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Later that day, Trump gave a televised address, in which he noted, “I have been talking about this for many months with all of you. I have said very strongly that mail-in ballots are going to be a disaster.” Trump went on to declare that “if you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us.”

At this point, many television broadcast networks cut away from the president’s speech, with one host, MSNBC’s Brian Williams, saying the press conference “was not rooted in reality, and, at this point, where our country is, it’s dangerous.”

Over the course of the next month, Twitter flagged hundreds of President Trump’s tweets as “misleading,” taking issue with his claims of electoral fraud. Trump lashed out at Twitter via a series of tweets, declaring: “Section 230, which is a liability shielding gift from the U.S. to “Big Tech” (the only companies in America that have it – corporate welfare!), is a serious threat to our National Security & Election Integrity. Our Country can never be safe & secure if we allow it to stand.”

He continued: “Therefore, if the very dangerous & unfair Section 230 is not completely terminated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), I will be forced to unequivocally VETO the Bill when sent to the very beautiful Resolute desk. Take back America NOW. Thank you!”

On December 2, Congress called the president’s bluff, passing the NDAA without any reference to Section 230, thereby setting up a presidential veto that not only threatens US national security in terms of potentially delaying critical defense funding, but, more importantly, perpetuates the notion of electoral fraud that has irrevocably damaged the perception of American ‘democracy’ across the globe. In a world where perception creates its own reality, this outcome cannot be taken lightly.

For most Americans, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 does not readily resonate as one of the most fundamental influences of their modern social-media-intensive lives. Section 230 provides immunity to social media companies against being sued for content posted on their sites, creating a legal framework that prevents these companies from being defined as a publisher and thus liable for defamation. While the US Supreme Court eventually struck down most of the Act as an unconstitutional restriction of free speech, Section 230 remained.

Then came 2016, and allegations from Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party, and the administration of Barack Obama that Russia used social media to post disinformation in an effort to tilt the election in favor of Donald Trump. The likes of Facebook and Twitter were suddenly placed on the proverbial Congressional hot seat, having to respond to accusations that the hands-free approach to monitoring content posted on their platforms had facilitated what was being described by those who lost the 2016 election as an assault against American democracy.

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Faced with the real threat of a Congressional backlash, both Facebook and Twitter undertook to weed out what they called “political disinformation” from their platforms. While much of their early effort seemed focused on purging ‘bots’ (that is, fake accounts) allegedly controlled by outside actors such as Russia and Iran, the controversy over Section 230 again raised its head when, in October 2019, the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, announced he was banning all political ads from his service. According to Dorsey, these ads had “significant ramifications that today’s democratic infrastructure may not be prepared to handle.”

Dorsey’s decision was immediately praised by the Democrats, who were still operating under a working assumption that Russia was trying to repeat its success of 2016 by helping Trump get re-elected in 2020, and would once again seek to use these platforms as an echo chamber of misinformation to damage Democratic political interests. The Republicans, not surprisingly, viewed Dorsey’s actions as an act of political censorship that represented little more than a partisan act intended to silence conservatives.

Then, on May 26, 2020, came the tweet from America’s tweeter-in-chief that changed the entire landscape of the Section 230 debate. “There is NO WAY (ZERO!) that Mail-In Ballots will be anything less than substantially fraudulent,” Trump tweeted. “This will be a Rigged Election. No way!”

Twitter responded, posting: “We added a label to two @realDonaldTrump Tweets about California’s vote-by-mail plans as part of our efforts to enforce our civic integrity policy. We believe those Tweets could confuse voters about what they need to do to receive a ballot and participate in the election process. We also wanted to provide additional context and conversation with regard to voter fraud and mail-in ballots. We have a range of remediations, and in some cases, we add labels that link to more context.”

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The Twitter label “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” contained a link that took the reader to a news story that noted, among other things, that Trump’s claims were “unsubstantiated, according to CNN, Washington Post and others. Experts say mail-in ballots are very rarely linked to voter fraud.”

Twitter would have done well to avoid consulting either CNN or the Washington Post, both of which have a history of blatant anti-Trump bias when it comes to their political reporting, and, instead, to have relied on the conclusions of the bipartisan September 2005 Report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform, ‘Building Confidence in US Elections’, co-chaired by former Democratic President Jimmy Carter and former Republican Secretary of State James Baker. On page 46 of that report, under the heading “Absentee Ballot and Voter Registration Fraud”, the authors note that “absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud.”  The report cites a 1998 case in which the result of the City of Miami mayoral race was reversed and a new election ordered because of absentee-voter fraud. “Absentee balloting,” the report observed, “is vulnerable to abuse in several ways,” concluding that “vote buying schemes are far more difficult to detect when citizens vote by mail.”

Two days after Twitter’s editorial intervention, Trump signed an executive order that, among other things, declared “it is the policy of the United States that the scope of that immunity [afforded by Section 230] should be clarified: the immunity should not extend beyond its text and purpose to provide protection for those who purport to provide users a forum for free and open speech, but, in reality, use their power over a vital means of communication to engage in deceptive or pretextual actions, stifling free and open debate by censoring certain viewpoints.”

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Trump’s executive order was little more than an act of political theater. Even the president recognized that, void of Congressional action terminating Section 230, his order would most likely not survive a legal challenge in the courts.

The president made the issue of mail-in voting and what he believed to be its potential for widespread fraud a centerpiece of his campaign during the summer of 2020. In August, in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity, he declared that mail-in voting in the November election would result in “catastrophic corruption”, and noted that “this whole thing with this mail-in ballot, that’s a rigged election waiting to happen. It’s rigged and everyone knows it.”

Trump’s concerns over the possibility of mail-in voter fraud served as the foundation for his post-election claims of a “stolen election” and his ongoing battle with Twitter and Congress over Section 230. The fact is that, as things currently stand, there has been no cognizable case presented to any court anywhere by the Trump legal team that proves electoral fraud in the 2020 election. Moreover, Congress has more than enough votes to override any presidential veto of the 2020 NDAA, making the president’s stance on Section 230 moot.

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But the damage done by this entire fiasco is real. If observers were to erase the name ‘United States’ or any reference to an American president from this narrative and treat the 2020 election in a vacuum; it would not be called legitimate by any credible international election-monitoring organization. If this scenario were played out in Russia, Iran, or Venezuela, the US State Department would reject the results out of hand. The fact of the matter is, the 2020 presidential election is defined in many ways by the Section 230 dispute, in which politicized speech has been tampered with to such an extent that no one knows what the truth is anymore. American democracy has become a bad joke, and the ‘shining city on the hill’ is actually now a ghetto. 

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