This collection on American democracy challenges and complements blog posts and opinion pieces that are typical staples of the 24/7 news cycle in the lead up to US elections. You'll find reports about election and campaign administration, voting access and participation, government performance and perceptions, the role of the media in civil society, and more.

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"VOTE!" by Paul Sableman licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Social Media Seen as Mostly Good for Democracy Across Many Nations, But U.S. is a Major Outlier

December 6, 2022

As people across the globe have increasingly turned to Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other platforms to get their news and express their opinions, the sphere of social media has become a new public space for discussing – and often arguing bitterly – about political and social issues. And in the mind of many analysts, social media is one of the major reasons for the declining health of democracy in nations around the world.However, as a new Pew Research Center survey of 19 advanced economies shows, ordinary citizens see social media as both a constructive and destructive component of political life, and overall most believe it has actually had a positive impact on democracy. Across the countries polled, a median of 57% say social media has been more of a good thing for their democracy, with 35% saying it has been a bad thing.There are substantial cross-national differences on this question, however, and the United States is a clear outlier: Just 34% of U.S. adults think social media has been good for democracy, while 64% say it has had a bad impact. In fact, the U.S. is an outlier on a number of measures, with larger shares of Americans seeing social media as divisive.

A Brief History of Tech and Elections: A 26-Year Journey

September 28, 2022

The first political campaigns to utilize the internet were President Bill Clinton's and Republican nominee Bob Dole's in 1996. In the 26 years since, technology has had a huge impact on elections around the world – for better and for worse.This report analyzes the public announcements made by technology companies over the past 26 years. We chronologically catalog which companies were founded during that timeframe and their public messaging about their election roles. We also document how platforms transitioned from touting their importance to candidates' voter outreach to the deplatforming of a sitting president of the United States for violating their community standards.This report is not a comprehensive examination at how campaigns used technology over the years; many online tools such as email, websites, fundraising platforms, and texting are not covered. We also do not go deep into the effects of bloggers or the mainstream media on the political process. Instead, the report offers a snapshot of campaigns from the tech companies' point of view.

How Tech and Election Officials can Protect Elections Online

August 24, 2022

Tech companies can be a force for good around elections. Their scale allows them to reach hundreds of millions of Americans, and their agility and resources enable them to adapt to emerging situations in real-time. When working to their full potential, tech companies can connect Americans to their local governments, make the complex and varied processes around voting comprehensible and transparent, and help restore Americans' faith in elections. To achieve all this, tech companies should collaborate with election officials to communicate official information that voters need and to mitigate the harms, such as false information and harassment, that can occur on their respective platforms.

Campaigns and Elections

Misleading Information and the Midterms: How Platforms are Addressing Misinformation and Disinformation Ahead of the 2022 U.S. Elections

July 20, 2022

Since 2020, misinformation and disinformation related to election and voter suppression have continued to spread at a growing rate across online platforms. While internet platforms ramped up attempts to combat such information during the 2020 elections, many of these efforts appear to have been temporary measures. In anticipation of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, this report evaluates how online platforms are combating misleading election information against a selection of recommendations made by the Open Technology Institute in 2020. Using this data, the report demonstrates which platforms have made the most progress on tackling misleading election information, which platforms are falling behind, and where companies need to invest more resources.


Politics on Twitter: One-Third of Tweets From U.S. Adults Are Political

June 16, 2022

Pew Research Center conducted this study to gain insight into Twitter users' political engagement, attitudes and behaviors on the platform. For this analysis, we surveyed 2,548 U.S. adult Twitter users in May 2021 about their experiences on the site, as well as how they engage with politics outside of Twitter. Everyone who took part in this survey is a member of the Center's American Trends Panel (ATP) – an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses – and indicated that they use Twitter. In addition to the survey findings, researchers from the Center also examined the actual Twitter profiles of a subset of survey participants who agreed to share their handles for research purposes. First, researchers collected all of the publicly visible tweets posted between May 2020 and May 2021 by these users. Researchers then used a machine learning classifier to identify which of those tweets mentioned politics or political concepts. Second, they collected a random sample of 2,859 accounts followed by at least one of these users – as well as all of the accounts followed by 20 or more respondents – and manually categorized them into different substantive categories based on their profile information.

Civic Participation

Influencing the Internet: Democratizing the Politics that Shape Internet Governance

May 24, 2022

Internet governance refers to the processes to make decisions about how the internet is managed locally, nationally, regionally and internationally. This sociotechnical infrastructure (which includes the people, practices, standards and institutions that govern different components of the internet) has evolved in a way that is often indifferent to questions of human rights, justice and democracy.Research from this new white paper by the National Democratic Institute has found there is a lack of meaningful participation or oversight in these institutions from civil society, journalists and democratically elected political actors. The voices heard in internet policy and regulatory spaces are not geographically diverse, with inadequate representation from outside of North America, Europe and China. Even among high-income countries, women of all backgrounds, as well as people with disabilities and those who do not speak English fluently, face challenges in participating in internet governance fora.Current models of internet governance are being challenged from different directions, not all of them positive for democracy, as different stakeholders acknowledge these flaws. One challenge is in determining how multistakeholder institutions can reinvent themselves to offer a better alternative and avert a slide toward state-dominated governance models, by making themselves into something that stakeholders who currently feel excluded have greater reason to support. If these traditionally underrepresented stakeholders were to gain more negotiating leverage in internet governance institutions, existing and future norms would be renegotiated and the resulting standards, policies and protocols would have the potential to better serve democratic outcomes.This white paper explores some of the barriers to participation in national, regional and international fora on the development of internet norms, policies, and standards. It also outlines recommendations for different stakeholder groups, including donors, development agencies, governments, activists, civil society organizations, internet governance institutions, and the private sector, to improve coordination and make meaningful progress towards more inclusive outcomes.


Alt-Finance for Alt-Tech: Monetizing the Insurrection Online Before and After January 6

May 5, 2022

This brief maps the financial tools and techniques employed by alt-tech industry leaders like Gab's CEO Andrew Torba, high-profile members of the Proud Boys, and others implicated in the January 6 Capitol attack and the far-right's assault on American democratic institutions. For many in this milieu, Amazon's decision to pull hosting for Parler following the Capitol attack was a clarion call to the need for a parallel web, and prominent players have since flocked to the task of building it. 


Balancing Security, Access, and Privacy in Electronic Ballot Transmission

March 28, 2022

Trade-offs are inherent to election administration. Election officials and policymakers must regularly make decisions that restrict or expand voter access, detract or enhance election security, and reduce or enshrine voter privacy. These decisions ought to be simple: policymakers should prioritize expanding privacy, security, and access over restricting it.The electronic transmission of ballots is a direct embodiment of this conflict. Election officials and cybersecurity experts agree that electronic ballot return yields vulnerabilities that cannot be mitigated while preserving ballot privacy. Despite the vulnerabilities, electronic ballot transmission is crucial in ensuring that citizens unable to vote through traditional voting methods (such as mail or in-person voting) can still cast a ballot. Electronic ballot return is already being utilized to some extent in at least 31 states, particularly for military and overseas voters. Despite its fairly extensive adoption, there remains almost no real conversation among election experts about how to do it well and what policy options facilitate those practices.This paper strives to provide state lawmakers and election officials with thoughtful and proactive guidance on how to improve the administration of electronic ballot transmission. Rather than focus on the expansion or removal of electronic ballot transmission options, it outlines best practices that are informed by the learned experiences of election administrators, cybersecurity experts, and accessibility advocates.

Campaigns and Elections

Toward Ethical Technology: Framing Human Rights in the Future of Digital Innovation

March 28, 2022

The health of our American democracy depends upon equitable and safe digital spaces. This report examines and synthesizes intersectional movements to build better, more inclusive, and humane technologies. It also introduces a set of principles and inclusive frameworks to help platform, product, and policy leaders conceptualize intentional ethical technology that is responsive to the needs of impacted communities and shape meaningful interventions for systems-level shifts at the intersections of technology and human rights. Rights x Tech is a forum and community that explicitly explores the intersections of technology and power. It brings together technologists, policymakers, and movement leaders for dialogue and solution-building on emerging issues around human rights, products, and power.


Media and Democracy: Unpacking America’s Complex Views on the Digital Public Square

March 9, 2022

Are internet technologies doing more harm than good to our democracy? And what – if anything – should lawmakers do about it?Because these questions are critical to U.S. elections, democracy and public health, Gallup and Knight Foundation sought American views on the way forward. Surprisingly, Americans' opinions did not always follow party lines when it comes to Internet regulation. In fact, half of Americans occupy a diverse middle ground, a new Gallup/Knight survey of 10,000 adults found, offering a new lens on the national conversation on free expression online.


Learning from Digital Democracy Initiative Grantees

January 20, 2022

Democracy Fund's Digital Democracy Initiative (DDI) and its grantees are radically reimagining what it looks like to make platforms accountable to the American public and renew public interest media.To support this work, the team's evaluation and learning partner, ORS Impact, conducted learning conversations with DDI grantees in September and October 2021 to understand:How grantees have responded to the past yearWhat it would take to better center racial equity in DDI's strategy and in grantees' workWhere grantees see opportunities in the current momentThe report summarizes findings about these three topics within and across learning conversations and raises considerations for funders about how to better center racial equity in their grant making, how to better support their grantees, and opportunities ripe for investment. The report encourages funders to reflect on these considerations and how they might be applicable to their strategy.


Parler and the Road to the Capitol Attack: Investigating Alt-Tech Ties to January 6

January 5, 2022

The January 6, 2021 mob assault on the U.S. Capitol exposed deep fissures between Americans and shook the very foundations of the country. The violence that day and the tech industry's response to the tsunami of polarizing content triggered a major public debate over how social media and tech companies manage their platforms and services and the impact of content moderation policies on polarization, extremism, and political violence in the United States. That debate is also now playing out in Congress where the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol is now underway. One big question is: How did niche social media sites geared toward far-right audiences, like Parler, contribute to polarization around the 2020 presidential election and to what extent did Parler and other platforms factor into the January 6 attack? The first in a series of investigations into the impact of the alt-tech movement on U.S. national security, this report provides an initial snapshot of observations culled from an ongoing analysis of open source data related to the Capitol attack.Based, in part, on an early assessment of a cache of an estimated 183 million Parler posts publicly archived after Parler was temporarily deplatformed, the analysis in this report offers unique insights into online and offline early warning signs of the potential for election-related violence in the year-long run up to the Capitol attack. On the streets and online, the networked effects of poor platform governance across the internet during the 2020 presidential election were notable on mainstream and fringe social media sites. Nevertheless, the combined impact of Parler's loose content moderation scheme as well as data-management practices and platform features—either by design or neglect, or both—may have made the social media startup especially vulnerable to strategic influence campaigns that relied heavily on inauthentic behavior like automated content amplification and deceptive techniques like astroturfing.