(From left to right) Liz Landers, Investigative Correspondent, Scripps News; Colin Crowell, Global Managing Director, The Blue Owl Group; Bob Kolasky, Senior Vice President of Critical Infrastructure, Exiger; and Megan Shahi, Technology Director, Center for American Progress, in conversation. Meridian House, April 24, 2024. Photo by Oskar Dap.


On Wednesday, April 24, Meridian hosted “Truth Talks: Digital Trends Shaping the 2024 Elections,” the latest installment of the Center for Diplomatic Engagement’s Election Briefing series. This event delved into the transformative impact of social media and big data analytics on electoral processes, exploring the evolving landscape shaped by online platforms. From analyzing the strategies employed by foreign actors to addressing algorithmic practices influencing public discourse, the panel discussion provided insights into the multifaceted dynamics shaping the 2024 elections in the United States and globally. 

The program built on the first installment in the Election Briefing series, Roadmap to November, featuring a panel discussion, including: 

  • Colin Crowell, Global Managing Director, The Blue Owl Group 
  • Bob Kolasky, Senior Vice President of Critical Infrastructure, Exiger   
  • Megan Shahi, Technology Director, Center for American Progress 

Investigative Correspondent Liz Landers with Scripps News moderated the program and Frank Justice, Vice President of Diplomatic Engagement at Meridian International Center presided.  

Here are some­ top takeaways from the program:

1. Digital Security as National Security 

In the digital age, safeguarding elections isn't just about preserving the integrity of the voting process—it's a matter of national security. As witnessed in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, foreign interference through disinformation campaigns, social media manipulation, and cyberattacks posed significant threats to the democratic process. Kolasky, drawing from his tenure at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), underscored the critical role of protecting election infrastructure as a cornerstone of national security. He highlighted the importance of fortifying critical infrastructure against foreign interference to ensure the integrity of the electoral process. The evolution of election security strategies reflects a broader recognition that defending against digital threats is synonymous with defending national sovereignty. The evolving tactics used by malicious actors require proactive measures and adaptive strategies to safeguard election processes and uphold democratic principles. 

2. Not All Misinformation is Created Equal 

In navigating the complex terrain of misinformation and disinformation, it becomes evident that not all forms are equal, necessitating nuanced responses tailored to each category. Crowell highlighted the varied nature of misinformation, emphasizing the distinct challenges posed by different types. For instance, while paid political ads were used nefariously by foreign entities during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, protected political speech under the First Amendment presents a different set of considerations. However, companies do not necessarily respond in a rational manner towards the spread of misinformation; according to Shahi, companies are reluctant to act as arbiters of information, particularly for protected political speech, regardless of the validity of the source. While social media platforms are increasingly employing measures to combat misinformation, such as flagging inauthentic accounts and implementing content moderation policies, the nuances of different types of misinformation demand targeted solutions. Further, while innovations like AI-driven content moderation can help, they must be transparent and accountable. Kolasky echoed this sentiment, noting that companies must navigate a delicate balance between protecting freedom of expression and preventing the spread of harmful content. As companies grapple with these complexities, they must remain vigilant in discerning between protected speech, fraudulent content, and disinformation intended to suppress voter turnout or incite violence.  

3. Regulatory Horizons 

As technology increasingly shapes voting processes and potentially influences election outcomes, the absence of standardized digital information legislation in the U.S. has allowed misinformation to proliferate online, posing significant challenges for policymakers, private sector actors, and social media experts alike. This lack of regulation has led to exponential growth in the spread of misinformation during recent election cycles, as there are limited mechanisms in place to validate online information sources. Efforts such as the introduction of the Honest Ads Act aimed to address this issue by promoting transparency and accountability in digital political advertising. Despite not passing, this legislation sparked greater interest in digital campaign transparency. Shahi emphasized how the patchwork of regulations faced by companies operating globally further underscores the complexity of the regulatory environment. Her insights into the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA) highlights a forward-thinking approach, emphasizing desired outcomes over rigid compliance rules and encouraging companies to prioritize user safety, content moderation, and misinformation prevention. As a “derivative beneficiary of European regulation,” Shahi explained how the U.S. digital information ecosystem is buoyed by the DSA, which establishes a regulatory floor. By setting a standard for companies to safeguard social media users from disinformation, the DSA leads the charge as a guiding framework in the absence of comprehensive U.S. legislation.

4. Unique Attributes to American Democracy 

Amidst the global landscape of digital information, the American system stands out for its unique attributes and challenges. Unlike many other democracies, the absence of a centralized national election commission in the U.S. complicates efforts to regulate and safeguard the electoral process. Colin Crowell highlighted this distinction, underscoring the decentralized nature of election administration across various states, which poses challenges for ensuring consistency and transparency. Megan Shahi pointed out that in countries like Brazil, India, and Mexico, election transparency is often ensured by federal election commissions, whereas in the U.S., the lack of standardized election practices contributes to the proliferation of misinformation. Additionally, the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, adds another layer of complexity. While this constitutional safeguard is fundamental to American democracy, it also presents hurdles in curbing the spread of misinformation and disinformation online. Addressing these unique challenges requires innovative approaches tailored to the American context, striking a delicate balance between upholding democratic principles and combating digital threats. 

5. The Biggest Risks and Opportunities 

Looking ahead to the 2024 election cycle, speakers underscored several critical threats that demand proactive mitigation strategies. Kolasky highlighted the persistent risk of violence instigated by online discourse surrounding elections, emphasizing the imperative to ensure the safety of voters and election officials. Kolasky further emphasized the importance of protecting physical voting infrastructure from cyber threats, highlighting the need for comprehensive security measures to safeguard the integrity of the electoral process. Shahi echoed this concern, pointing to the escalating danger posed by deepfake technology, which disseminate manipulated videos or audio recordings with alarming authenticity. Furthermore, the absence of robust scrutiny in local and state-level elections renders them particularly vulnerable to manipulation and misinformation campaigns. Crowell emphasized the importance of digital media literacy education in combating these threats, stressing the need to equip voters with the tools to critically evaluate information and discern truth from falsehood. By addressing these multifaceted challenges head-on and fostering an informed electorate, stakeholders can bolster the resilience of the electoral process and safeguard the integrity of democracy in the digital age.

This program was made possible through the generous support of the Scholl Foundation

Project summary

Regions: Western Hemisphere
Impact Areas: Artificial Intelligence and Cybersecurity, Science and Technology, Governance and Transparency
Program Areas: Diplomatic Engagement
Partners: NGOs
4.24 elections