Meta Thinks the 2020 Election is Past. For a Dangerous Minority, It’s Not.

Kathryn Peters / Dec 12, 2023

Mark Zuckerberg testifies to the US House Energy & Commerce Committee on March 25, 2021. Source

Last week, 10 Wisconsinites who served as fraudulent electors in 2020 accepted a legal settlement specifying that former President Trump lost that election. This is the first case in which any of the people who participated in fake elector slates have specifically had to accept the result of that election—many more likely still do not. And yet one critical player in shaping US political discourse has decided that the 2020 election is firmly-decided history, safely enough in the past that claiming it was “rigged” or “stolen” is no longer a concern.

Meta – which operates Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp – made this change to its election advertising policy quietly, but Wall Street Journal reporter Salvador Rodriguez highlighted the shift in a recent piece. Meta justified its decision by noting that its policy still prohibits “ads that call into question the legitimacy of an upcoming or ongoing election.”

But elections aren’t perfectly discrete events. The reality is that claims made about the 2020 cycle are no longer about 2020: they justify ongoing harassment of election workers and voters, legitimize worrisome changes to how future elections are run, and lay the foundation for efforts to overturn the 2024 election. To paraphrase the novelist William Faulkner, the 2020 election isn’t dead. It’s not even past. 2020 is still playing out everywhere, from the likely rematch of the candidates at the top of the 2024 ballot to the new baseline level of harassment and threats that election officials receive in their day-to-day jobs.

Indeed, it is well reported that claims of a rigged election triggered a torrent of harassment and threats against election officials that shows no signs of stopping. A recent survey from Civic Pulse found that “levels of insult, harassment, threats, and attacks remained largely consistent over a one-year period, indicating persistent high baselines of hostile behavior towards local officials.” Envelopes of fentanyl mailed to election offices in Georgia, California, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington this fall are a vivid reminder that outrage about the 2020 election continues to motivate some to take radical, and potentially dangerous, action. These threats and harassment have lasting effects on future elections, as Reed College’s Elections and Voting Information Center’s 2023 Local Election Officials report found that turnover has doubled compared to past years’ surveys.

False claims about 2020 also animate changes to the election rules that will govern 2024. For example, the Board of Supervisors in Shasta County, California, revoked the county’s contract with Dominion Voting Systems over the objections of the county’s election official and sought to implement hand-counting of ballots (counter to state law). The county ultimately used new voting machines to tabulate its 2023 local election after intervention from the California Secretary of State’s office and multiple nonprofit and civic groups from across the state.

Likewise, in Arkansas the state legislature enacted a law with provisions to accommodate hand-counting in counties that choose to do so. These challenges to established best practices in vote tabulation are rooted in claims about 2020, most notably conspiracy theories about voting machines and tabulators ‘flipping’ votes—and they jeopardize election officials’ ability to ensure timely, accurate results in 2024. It’s no accident that changes like these use disinformation about 2020 to undermine effective election administration and generate new errors and confusion to fuel future claims of fraud.

Finally, lies about 2020 can still undermine voters’ trust in later elections. Research on disinformation and belief in conspiracies shows that repeated exposure to false information increases the likelihood that an individual will come to believe it. Advertising that broadcasts long-debunked claims about the 2020 election can prime new audiences to believe lies about 2024 that build on the same core narratives. Those ads can even introduce key officials as recurring villains—while many election workers have retired or resigned, many others continue to serve their same communities, providing direct lines of continuity for attacks on the 2020 election to erode voters’ confidence in 2024.

By selling election deniers ads that amplify and renew long-debunked claims about 2020, Meta is offering a loophole for those that seek to challenge elections next year and beyond. What’s even more galling is that election advertising is a comparatively easy content area for Meta to moderate. Advertisers are required to be authorized before running any political content, making them an easy subset to identify from the larger advertiser community, which is itself a much smaller group to monitor than user accounts across the platform. Election ads are subject to other content rules, including ‘paid for by’ information and compliance with Meta’s revised policy against challenging the legitimacy of an upcoming election. In the past, Meta has even restricted when new political ads can begin running in advance of an election, to provide “additional time for scrutiny.”

Ultimately, this policy change is another clear example of the ‘laissez faire’ attitude toward democracy that Daniel Kreiss and Bridgett Barrett warned about in Tech Policy Press at the start of the year. By turning a blind eye to how past elections—and this specific past election, which ended with a bloody insurrection—can have lasting impacts, Meta further renounces its role as a democratic gatekeeper even as it stands to profit from those who seek to overthrow legitimate election outcomes. That’s not resolved history.


Kathryn Peters
Kathryn Peters is an independent strategist and technologist who works to create a more engaged, inclusive democracy. She is currently imagining the potential of local politics, smaller social media communities, and more human-scale communication to revitalize our public discourse. Kathryn was the i...