Q&A: Looking Out For Election Misinformation

People hold campaign signs across the street from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in 2016.
People hold campaign signs across the street from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in 2016. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
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Election officials are warning Ohioans to look out for online misinformation that could confuse voters about the process of casting a ballot – or convince them not to vote at all.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress this month he’s concerned the United States will see Russian-linked efforts to muddy the waters of 2020, as happened in 2016.

“We’re trying to make sure Americans know to get information about where and when and how to vote, you need to go to your local election officials’ website, and don’t take it from social media,” he said.

This week, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned that "foreign actors and cybercriminals" could sow disinformation about the 2020 election, particularly if mail-in ballots leave the results incomplete on Election Night. 

ideastream’s Nick Castele talked with All Things Considered Host Tony Ganzer about what voters and election boards can do about online misinformation.

What sort of misinformation or disinformation are we talking about here?

The people who follow this make a distinction between misinformation, which is being factually incorrect but possibly by accident, and disinformation, which is deliberately spreading falsehoods in an attempt to confuse.

The Senate Intelligence Committee last year released a report looking back on interference in the 2016 election. And the committee said there was an effort, linked to Russian intelligence, basically to capitalize on our own divisions as a country. Creating bogus social media groups focused on wedge issues like guns or immigration, all with the aim to boost Donald Trump’s candidacy and hurt Hillary Clinton’s.

I spoke about all this with Suzanne Spaulding, who is a senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies about all of this.

“A lot of what we saw in 2016, we understood – that we saw from Russia – was just part of a longer-term and broader campaign by Russia to undermine our democracy,” Spaulding said. “Not just elections, but public faith and confidence in democracy itself and in democratic institutions.”

In 2016, Spaulding was responsible for critical infrastructure at the Department of Homeland Security, which is front and center in these efforts to secure elections from interference. And this year, by the way, there’s concern that other countries, like China, may try their hand at election disinformation.

What can the people in states and counties running elections do about this?

There’s an organization at Harvard’s Belfer Center called the Defending Digital Democracy Project, and they’re focused on counteracting election meddling or disinformation.

They’ve published guidebooks on how to recognize misinformation – particularly around the who, what, when, where and how and voting. They advise election officials to develop a plan ahead of time, knowing how they’re going to respond, how they’re going to recognize this misinformation so that they can get the facts into social media and into mainstream news as quickly as possible.

Has Ohio changed the way it runs elections to adapt to this threat of misinformation or cyberattacks?

Over the past few years, the state has required county election boards to basically look through their computer systems to find possible vulnerabilities and to install new safeguards. Some of it is basic steps like moving websites and email to a dot-gov account

Secretary of State Frank LaRose says his office will be keeping an eye out for online misinformation.

“We’ve set up a team here at the secretary of state’s office that’s sort of constantly tracking things on social media or calls that we’re getting,” LaRose said at a September election task force meeting. “Often the quickest indication of something going wrong is something that pops up on social media.”

In 2018, we saw election officials respond to one piece of viral misinformation.

On Election Day during the midterms, there was a video spreading on social media. It purported to show a voting machine changing someone’s vote. In fact, it was actually a paper jam in the machine, so it was spitting out the wrong receipt for a different voter.

The county board of elections in Franklin County, they got out in front of the story, they got the facts out into social media and to reporters who were covering the election, as a way to tamp down on this spreading. And that’s really held up now as an example for how boards can respond when viral misinformation rears its head.

“Folks have been working hard over the last four years to make sure that we have better cybersecurity,” Spaulding said. “That importantly, having now understood that it was a lot of the election interference was aimed at undermining confidence in the results, there’s a lot of work done on paper trails, on audits, the ability to reassure the public about the legitimacy of the election.”

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