Testing ahead of U.S. elections reveals struggle to quell disinformation

A man wears a shirt supporting U.S. President Donald Trump while waiting in a socially distant line to vote on the first day of early voting for the 2020 U.S. presidential election at the Fairfax County Government Center in Fairfax, Virginia, U.S.

U.S. election day exercises simulating attacks ranging from hackers to anthrax to disrupt voting show state and local officials will struggle to quickly counter falsehoods flooding social media, according to five people familiar with the tests.

The assessments come as U.S. intelligence officials and security analysts expect an onslaught of digital misinformation surrounding the election on November 3. Last week, National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone identified disinformation as the biggest threat to the election.

The scenarios within the simulations included: exercises to test how election officials would react to cyber-enabled electrical blackouts, fake claims of ballot stuffing, fake bomb threats against polling stations made from anonymous callers and fake claims of an anthrax outbreak on election day in specific counties with close results.

The tests are critical because state and local officials who administer elections will often be the first responders if disinformation on social media spreads false information and begins to mislead voters.

These officials will also be among the first to report these examples to social media firms like Facebook and Twitter to request the content be removed, said Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who has staff assigned to combat disinformation.

But even when content is taken down, convincing voters the information was incorrect remains difficult.

“Will your response reach the same audience who was affected by the disinformation? Can you still actually reach them if the disinformation is successful? And is there the risk that the denial itself amplifies the disinformation,” said Thomas Rid, a disinformation expert at Johns Hopkins University.

Since 2017, more than 25 states have conducted their own simulated exercises, also known as “tabletops.” The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency – a division of the Homeland Security Department – has organized a total of 55 exercises, according to an agency spokesman.

Cybereason, a Boston-based cybersecurity company, organized eight events over the last two years, involving both state and local election officials and federal agencies, a company spokesman said, with all of it done pro-bono.

Most of the details about the simulation exercises remain confidential and guests are discouraged from speaking to the media about them.

While election officials always seek to be the main source of voting information, it’s very difficult to do under urgent circumstances, according to New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver.

“Overall trying to get folks to know and understand who their local election officials are and how they can get information directly from them in a moment of crisis is an ongoing gap and challenge that we need to figure out,” Oliver added.

The FBI and Homeland Security Department said in a public service announcement on Thursday that voters should always “seek out information from trustworthy sources, such as state and local election officials” because of the threat of disinformation from “foreign actors and cybercriminals.”

State election officials have poured millions of dollars into digital advertising campaigns to reach voters and by growing their own social media followings to rapidly address fake information, NYK Daily previously reported, but progress is slow.

The lead election official in each state across the country often has less than a few thousands social media followers who they can immediately reach with an online posting. In Florida, a key battleground between President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the Secretary of State only has about 2100 Twitter followers and no Facebook account.

In California, the Secretary of State’s “CA SOS Vote” Twitter account has just 13,000 followers.The scenarios have tested how the election officials in tandem with federal partners would calm the public in an emergency situation, share accurate information and retain control of the situation so that the election could proceed normally.

They were not intended to test whether a specific state or agency would fail, but several people involved in the simulation told us the experience has proven that the spread of purposefully incorrect information to influence voter turnout in certain regions was among the biggest challenges for election officials to overcome.

“It’s eye opening, it gets you thinking about what could happen and let’s people plan,” said Amber McReynolds, a former elections director for Denver and early supporter of the exercises. “It’s often about communications issues, getting information out to the public and adjusting plans.”

“And it’s funny because a lot of the time the communications folks within states or counties do not get brought into the elections operational conversations in advance, and they are actually a critical partner,” she said.

Disinformation around the election is already a problem. In late August, an unknown number of Michigan voters received a robocall that falsely warned residents of Detroit that voting by mail could subject them to debt collection and forced vaccinations. Michigan’s attorney general has said it is investigating the incident.

It remains unclear who was behind the calls.

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