“This is as good as the federal government has worked on any issue in my experience,” Masterson said.
He also credited efforts in states, notably Georgia, that created paper trails of ballots that could be audited quickly and provide more visibility into the vote counting to help increase people’s trust in the election process.
The tech companies, François said, shifted to acknowledge their blind spots. For the first time, online powers including Facebook wrote policies specifically tackling foreign government meddling and put people in charge of stopping it. They also made it harder for foreign trolls to use some of their 2016 tactics, such as buying online advertisements to circulate divisive messages widely.
Social media companies also started to publicly announce when they found campaigns by foreign governments that were used to mislead people online. François said that helped researchers and journalists better assess the techniques of foreign propagandists — and the shared knowledge helped internet companies stop trolling campaigns before they had a big impact.
Cooperation improved between government and tech companies, too. There were regular meetings between major internet companies and the federal officials responsible for election protection to share information. And internet companies began to tell the public when the U.S. government tipped them off about foreign interference on their websites.
Both François and Masterson said that an “aha” moment was the response to Iran’s effort to intimidate voters during the fall. National security officials said then that Iran had obtained some Americans’ voter-registration data, most of which was publicly available, to send deceptive messages that threatened voters.
Because they were ready for threats like this, officials were able to make connections between voter intimidation in multiple states, identify the source of the menacing messages, inform election officials across the country and tell voters what was happening — all in about a day.