This article is part of a special series covering the US elections this November, which will be featured on DEBAT. DEBAT will publish an article on Monday, Wednesday and Friday until Election Day.

A guide to disinformation and election security in the 2020 elections

From claims that Bill Gates masterminded the coronavirus pandemic to QAnon, a conspiracy theory alleging that the world is run by a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles which includes Democratic politicians and Hollywood celebrities, 2020 has shown that it’s not all too hard to fool Americans into believing what’s true, or not. In an election year, this sort of disinformation will be particularly dangerous.

For as long as there have been elections, dirty tricks and disinformation have always been used to intimidate and mislead voters in hopes of influencing the outcome of elections in the United States. Whether it’s outright foreign interference, a far-right news channel spreading unproven claims, or heated discussions over false pretences on Reddit, the spread of disinformation has become an unmistakably pervasive issue this year as millions of Americans cast ballots in an unprecedentedly chaotic and contentious election season. And it doesn’t help that such claims are often echoed through the country’s political leaders from both sides of the spectrum, including the President himself.

Many of the fears expressed in recent weeks, such as the potential hacking of election machines nationwide or the possibility of widespread voter fraud through mail-in voting, have been overstated. However, the disinformation that directly targets the electorate is a clear cause of concern, as it undermines the idea of a conscious voter and their independence of choice. Along with the impact of the pandemic on nationwide election logistics, this all poses an unprecedented challenge to American democracy that may well go even further than what we saw in 2016. Free and fair elections and the ensuring peaceful transition of power have long cemented the success of the American political system, but it’s looking particularly fragile this time round.

In a recent election security survey conducted by ISACA, a nonpartisan technology association, misinformation (bad information unintentionally shared) and disinformation (bad information shared deliberately) are considered the most severe threat to election security, exceeding concerns about technical security that have also generated widespread fears this election. In essence, there’s a greater risk of Americans being fed false information than Russians or Iranians hacking into election servers, meaning that voters are now being constantly bombarded with these schemes from multiple foreign adversaries on social media. The survey also implied an overarching mistrust Americans have in the integrity of the election, where 76% of respondents believe that these potential threats to election security could significantly impact the November election.

This has led to stepped-up efforts by election officials and voter advocates to counter a wave of disinformation that will hit this election harder than any before, so that voters are not discouraged from turning out and that their choice is not influenced by any third-party voices.

Foreign involvement

Is the election under attack from non-American forces? Yes, but it’s also important to understand what this means. Efforts to mislead voters can take many forms. However, there are two big strategies associated with foreign nations trying to interfere in elections – changing votes and changing minds. America’s highly advanced electoral system, the result of having to accommodate over 100 million voters every four years, has enabled for accurate counting processes and reliable safeguards against outside interference. This means that foreign nations probably won’t be able to affect the process of casting and counting ballots and that voters can be confident that their ballots won’t be tampered with and will count towards the final result.

What foreign nations, especially Russia and Iran, are trying to do, however, is to “change minds,” which is to chip away Americans’ confidence about that process. One of the primary ways they intend to do this is to create an environment where citizens don’t feel they can believe what they’re seeing, or accept that the results of the race are legitimate. Complicating matters is that these efforts are being indirectly assisted by Americans themselves, whether it’s a far-right political pundit sowing fears of voter fraud or a Karen telling everyone in her neighborhood that the race is “rigged.”

Federal authorities announced this week that Iranian operatives were behind threatening emails sent to thousands of Democrats in Alaska and Florida, who posed as members of the white supremacist group Proud Boys, saying they’d better vote for President Trump “or else.” The group also falsely claimed that they had access to data that would reveal who their targets voted for, and said that “we will come after you” if their demands are not satisfied. The US intelligence community believes that Iranian and Russian operatives have successfully obtained voter-record information, enabling this incident to occur.

US national security officials from the FBI and CISA have also issued a series of warnings to say that while there has been no reporting to suggest that there had been successful cyberattacks against ballot infrastructure – that is anything to do with preventing voters from casting their ballots, compromising the integrity of the ballots cast, or affected the accuracy of voter registration information – the prospect that foreign influence-mongers could attack adjacent systems remain high. These can be attempts to attack systems that register voters, holds voter registration information, or even to provide unofficial reporting on Election Night.

As such, a cyberattack might attempt to shut down or deface a local county website that showed vote tallies, for example, without affecting the true result. Such attempts could render these systems temporarily inaccessible and hinder access to voting information for election officials, which could slow, but not prevent the voting or reporting of results.

The free-for-all platform – social media

The other big strategy in which not just foreign actors, but also Americans seeking to spread disinformation have pursued in efforts to change minds has been to use the vast, fast-spreading, and largely unregulated world of social media to try and make Americans believe things that are outright false, amplify disagreement, and even persuading people not to vote. This had been a big part of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, where its trolling specialists used accounts and pages disguised as Americans to influence voters, and has never stopped – this continues to be an ongoing issue, where their disinformation and agitation techniques have only become subtler and tougher to track this election.

In a report published on the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, researcher Young Mie Kim found that the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Kremlin-linked company behind an influence campaign that targeted the 2016 elections found that for this election, some of the same strategies have remained the same. Russian trolls had pretended to be American people, including political groups, candidates, and grassroots or community activists, and tried to sow division by targeting both the left and right with posts to generate outrage, fear, and hostility. Many posts also were aimed towards discouraging certain people from voting, and there was an overall focus on swing states.

However, IRA trolls have now gotten better at impersonating candidates and parties, moving away from creating their own fake advocacy groups to mimicking and appropriating the names of actual American groups, the result of being able to more closely mimic the logos, tone of communication, and messages of these groups. The report also found that IRA trolls have also increased their use of seemingly nonpolitical content and commercial accounts in an effort to shield officials from discovering their attempts to build networks of influence across the American populace.

The majority of the IRA’s influence campaigns have been issue or interest-based. Its trolls tend to exploit sharp political divisions that already exists in American society to create the picture of a two-sided “us and them” discourse across many issues. A prominent example would be that of their attempts to amplify the divide between the police and the African-American community throughout the George Floyd protests, where IRA influence campaigns have often centered around posts on “Blue Lives Matter” vs. “Black Lives Matter.” And in the 2020 elections, Kim had discovered a variety of both endorsements and attack messages for major candidates, parties, and politicians including the President himself, coming from IRA trolls.

To this end, national security officials said that they have taken new approaches to combat new tactics from foreign adversaries, including an often-and-early strategy where the FBI and Big Tech platforms such as Facebook would act as swiftly as possible to step in and stop trolling efforts in their early stage to deny it mass and opportunities to gain momentum. Officials are now also talking much more openly than ever about how they intend to safeguard this election, which may give the American populace a better chance to understand these clear threats to their vote.

Mail-in voting?

File:Oregon ballot return box.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
A ballot return box in Oregon (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Unsurprisingly, the shift to mail-in voting this year as a result of the pandemic has paved the way for an entirely new wave of disinformation and misinformation. This, however, is less related to attacks by foreign adversaries such as Iran or Russia and relates more to the actions of Americans themselves, including the President.

The claim that election fraud is a major concern due to mail-in ballots have become a central threat to election participation during the pandemic, and will no doubt hurt the legitimacy of the outcome of the election across the political spectrum. Despite consistent reassurances from top election officials that fraud is not, and has never been an issue for this election, President Trump has repeatedly cited his concerns over voter fraud associated with mail-in ballots as a reason for why he may not accept the outcome should he loses the election. As always, the President’s fears are resonated among his supporters, leading to a poll conducted in September 2020 to suggest that nearly half of Republicans share his belief that expanded mail-in voting will result in electoral fraud. In contrast, few Democrats share that belief.

The consensus among independent academic and journalistic investigations is that voter fraud is rare, and should it even occur, it would be almost impossible for instances of fraud to determine a national election. Despite this, tens of millions of Americans still believe the opposite. Efforts, if not entire disinformation campaigns, conducted by Republican leaders and many right-wing political pundits to mislead voters into believing that mail-in voting is an actual threat to election integrity have led to widespread acceptance of this apparently false belief and its partisan distribution pattern.

A research conducted by the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University; aimed at reinforcing the conclusion of previous research from 2015-2018 that the American political media ecosystem wields exceptional power over influencing the behavior of the American populace; found that Fox News and President Trump’s own campaign were far more influential in spreading false beliefs than Russian trolls or Facebook clickbait artists. This will definitely prove to be even more pronounced in this election cycle, likely because President Trump’s leadership of the Republican Party and strong presence on social media have allowed him to operate directly through Twitter and political & media elites, rather than being reliant on coverage of his campaign from news channels as he did in 2016. This creates space for the President and Republican elites to spread disinformation that can indirectly coerce Americans into voting for Trump this time around, evident in efforts to sow fear into voters’ minds – whether it be that of rioting & looting throughout the George Floyd protests or the “dangers” of voter fraud. And it doesn’t help that Russia’s also assisting the President in spreading these messages.

Just be smart?

Image by Ted Eytan on Flickr (Licensed under Creative Commons)

Many Americans like to believe what they see at first sight. Most also only stick to one source where they primarily get their news, allowing the media to play an understatedly important role in influencing the choice for voters. And it doesn’t really help that the American news media have shifted even further from the center of the political spectrum. Fox News is way more conservative than what it used to be, and CNN or MSNBC continues to drift leftward towards becoming unofficial spokespeople for the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, news sources that formerly write to satisfy a smaller, more radical readers have gained unprecedented traction across the US, especially among far-right crowds who now tend to call out whatever they don’t believe in to be “fake news.” Look to nowhere other than Breitbart and InfoWars to see how they’ve covered this election, and you’ll understand why some Americans still believe that Biden is a far-left radical. It’s a bit more subtle among left-wing sources, but the bias is definitely still there. If you don’t believe it, just check out The Young TurksBuzzFeed News, or Vox.

It’s not that hard to cross-check sources and make sure you’re getting your news from a reputable source. Even the federal government said that the best way for Americans to avoid being fed disinformation is to seek information from trustworthy sources and to “view early, unverified claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.” The best source of election information; that is how one can vote, how one should vote, or how one should fill in their ballot would be from state and local election officials and their websites. And it shouldn’t be hard to figure out which news sources are biased, and which are not. There’s literally a chart for it.

While social media companies should, and must do everything in their power to remove disinformation that may affect the election, it is up to Americans themselves to make sure they won’t be an easy target for manipulation. This may be even more important following Election Night, where foreign adversaries may use the coming uncertainty and controversy to their own benefit and sow further distrust in the electoral system – one that has proven itself to be resilient and capable. It’s not the system that’s at stake here, it’s what the people participating in that system think of it that is. If Americans don’t believe in their system, then who can?

Sources | NPR, The New York Times, The Economist, Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University