Citing the unprecedented strain the coronavirus has wrought on the U.S. election system, Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday announced that he and wife Priscilla Chan are donating $US300 ($407) million to increase voter turnout and bolster state and local election security efforts.
In a post, the Facebook founder and CEO said that the couple — worth more than $US100 ($136) billion — will donate the money to two recently founded nonpartisan groups. The groups will then decide independently where the money is needed the most.
According to Zuckerberg, $US250 ($339) million will go to the U.S. Centre for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a group founded in 2015 to help modernise local election systems. In a statement, CTCL said the donation would go toward poll worker recruitment, hazard pay, and training; polling place rental; temporary staffing support; drive-through voting; equipment to process ballots and applications; personal protective equipment (PPE) for poll workers; and nonpartisan voter education from cities and counties.
CTCL noted that experts at the Brennan Centre for Justice have estimated that around $US4 ($5) billion in funding is likely needed to successfully administer the 2020 elections, and that Congress has only allocated $US400 ($542) million so far. (The Brennan Centre’s estimate includes up to $US1.4 ($2) billion for a universal vote-by-mail option, which will not be available to most voters this year, despite warnings covid-19 is likely to dissuade some voters.)
CTCL is focused, it says, “on connecting Americans with the information they need to become and remain civically engaged and ensure that U.S. elections are more professional, inclusive, and secure by educating voters and supporting local election administration.”
The remaining $US50 ($68) million will be allocated by the Centre for Election Innovation & Research (CEIR), whose focus is more on election security: combating disinformation aimed at suppressing votes and strengthening election infrastructure against foreign meddling.
“Voting is the ultimate way we hold our leaders accountable and make sure our country is heading in the direction we want,” Zuckerberg wrote. “It is critical for our democracy that we all have confidence in the integrity and legitimacy of our elections, and that means having confidence that our country has the infrastructure to make sure every voter can make their voice heard.”
Zuckerberg’s announcement comes after recent acknowledgments by Facebook that its platform continues to be an avenue for manipulative content generated abroad aimed at stoking racial divisions in the United States and suppressing Black voter turnout. Misleading posts about mail-in voting in particular have run rampant on Facebook despite promises by Zuckerberg and other top executives the company will combat any voter suppression efforts.
Weeks after Zuckerberg announced new measures he said would counter voter suppression efforts in June, ProPublica documented multiple election-related posts that were deceptive and shared hundreds of thousands of times. One video, with more than 200,000 views, claimed falsely that California state officials were going to shutter all polling locations and allow mail-in voting exclusively. Another post shared by an anti-Muslim activist with 1.3 million followers fraudulently claimed that use of mail-in ballots will “guarantee that the Democrats will commit voter fraud.”
ProPublica said Facebook deleted the posts only after being questioned by reporters.
On Monday, Facebook announced a new partnership between its own researchers and 17 “independent external academics” to analyse the “role of Facebook and Instagram in the US 2020 election.” It said it plans to allow some users to opt in to the study so their experiences on the platforms can be analysed. “Other participants may be asked to stop using Facebook or Instagram for a period of time,” the company said. It has not promised to make any changes based on the results of the study, which it said will be published sometime next year.
Facebook said Tuesday that it had removed two pages and 13 accounts linked to Russian state actors who had attempted to spread false stories about racial justice. Russian operatives reportedly masqueraded as “left-wing journalists and editors,” researchers said, while targeting “progressive and left-wing audiences.” The Washington Post reported that some 200 journalists unwittingly accepted paid gigs writing articles for a website linked to one of the fake Facebook pages.
“The co-option of unwitting locals is part of a growing strategy used by foreign disinformation operatives,” the Post wrote.
“State election officials are facing unprecedented challenges during this election season. The covid-19 pandemic is resulting in election options and procedures different than voters have ever seen, while the threat of disinformation could greatly diminish voters’ confidence in democratic processes,” said CEIR Executive Director David Becker, who was formerly director of the elections program at the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Becker said in an email that CEIR could not yet say precisely how it will allocate the $US50 ($68) million.
“We will be offering all states the opportunity to apply for grants to assist them with voter education about things such as voter registration, early and mail voting opportunities, and polling locations/hours,” he said.