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How Your Local Election Clerk Is Fighting Global Disinformation

Russians don’t have to change votes. They can change minds.

Voters in Arlington, Va., in November 2018.
Voters in Arlington, Va., in November 2018.
Shutterstock/Rob Crandall
Jim Irizarry has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of false and misleading information about voting access coursing through social media lately. The assistant county clerk for San Mateo County, California, and his team have been training for this moment for years, since the sophisticated Russian disinformation machine emerged during the last presidential election.

“They don’t have to change a vote in the voting machines,” Irizarry said. “But if you can get into the minds of voters to undermine their confidence in casting that ballot, you’ve been successful.”

This year, state and local election officials across the country expect they’ll need to defend voters against potentially devastating and widespread disinformation attacks that could suppress turnout and sow doubt in November’s results.

Bad actors, from foreign nations to local gadflies, have countless opportunities to spread falsehoods and misleading information. In recent elections, voters have fallen victim to scams claiming people can vote by text message or claiming their polling place closed.

Lies on social media can go viral hours before an election, becoming nearly impossible to eliminate. And Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 2019 report found Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential race included fake Facebook groups and false advertising.

This year, the pandemic has exposed more potential for disinformation, as states and counties scramble to figure out how to conduct elections through expanded mail-in voting and fewer polling places.

“Communities need to know who the right people are with the answers,” said Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. “If things change at the last minute, we need a communications infrastructure that involves officials, journalists, candidates and parties to make sure voters are getting the correct information.”

This can be challenging, however. The United States has no national election system. There are 10,000 systems run by underfunded and thinly stretched counties and cities. Elections are decentralized, and so too is the response to disinformation.

The closer it gets to the presidential election, the louder the megaphone of misleading voices will get.

“We’re doing so much to ourselves by spreading conspiracy theories, spreading divisive content,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Securing Democracy. “We’re giving [foreign adversaries] what they need already.”

Massive public education campaigns by local and state election officials, along with local and national media, Rosenberger said, are essential in fighting election disinformation. If they don’t, the United States could see a repeat of the offenses from 2016.

How to Respond

Aggressively responding to misleading and false election information has become an essential part of Sam Mahood’s daily job as press secretary for California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat.

But Mahood’s response is not limited to one political party over another. A month before California’s presidential primary, Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama and co-host of Pod Save America, shared a tweet from his colleague at Crooked Media that falsely said the state was purging 5 million voters from its rolls. It caught Mahood’s attention, and he quickly went to Twitter.

“Neither of these things are true,” Mahood wrote to the tweet’s author. “Please delete this tweet, it’s just spreading misinformation.”

The tweet was taken down. Crooked Media, he said, apologized.

But local officials must weigh their responses; some claims might not be worth elevating through an official response, Mahood said, nor should he spend his day chasing social media interactions. Additionally, there is always a challenge with protecting political speech when responding to information that might be misleading or incorrect, he said.

“It’s very hard,” he said. “But you have to weigh where something is gaining traction and using the methods that are available to you.”

Over the past two years, Padilla’s office sent emails to every voter for whom they had addresses with information about reporting misinformation to the state. The Democrat’s office also has a prominent link on its website directing misinformation claims to a frequently checked email account.

By far, Mahood said, the biggest source of election disinformation this year has come from President Donald Trump, who continues to claim without evidence that voting by mail leads to massive voter fraud, despite having done so himself. Mahood fears voters and the media are getting desensitized to his claims, which could normalize them.

The bipartisan National Association of Secretaries of State last year launched the #TrustedInfo2020 campaign, working with federal intelligence agencies and social media companies and encouraging top state election officials to frequently communicate to the public.

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs told Stateline she is working with social media companies to verify the accounts of county election administrators, knowing the reliability that Twitter’s blue checkmark can signal. Her office also is spending $1.5 million from the federal CARES Act on voter education.

And she helped install threat liaison officers for every county to coordinate cybersecurity efforts with her office and federal authorities.

“We know that there are actors out there that intend to disrupt elections,” said Hobbs, a Democrat. “It can undermine the election. It can undermine people’s willingness to participate.”

Pandemic Problems

For other states, the increased reliance on mail-in voting under the outbreak of COVID-19 potentially creates a new avenue for election misinformation.

Election officials in Illinois worry that voters might be susceptible to misinformation about polling places or voting dates being changed, or voter registration periods closing. An NBC 5 survey from earlier this year showed two-thirds of Illinois county officials were concerned about social media misinformation.

Illinois is gearing up in response. Among the planned public service announcements are YouTube ads directing residents to their county election websites to register and request absentee ballots.

Prairie State officials know what it’s like to be targeted. In 2016, Russian operatives gained access to Illinois’ voter registration database. Matt Dietrich, spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Elections, said that while the hack did not affect any votes, it did have a psychological effect on voters. The state has since invested more in cybersecurity.

“A lot of people who aren’t familiar with vote-by-mail are going to use it,” Dietrich said. “We don’t want them to fall victim to social media nonsense.”

Minnesota in January created an election security cyber navigator role to lead the state’s response to these issues, coordinating among the 87 county election administrators.

“There’s a chance that a problem observed in one county is not unique,” said inaugural cyber navigator Bill Ekblad. “Something as simple as creating a group chat room between the counties does so much.”

Social Media’s Role

State and local election officials also have built stronger relationships with social media companies over the past four years, working with them to take down misinformation and promote voter registration drives. But detecting and reporting misinformation can be difficult for officials to tackle on their own.

Some companies, such as data science startup VineSight, are trying to detect election misinformation early. Using artificial intelligence technology, the company provides data to targeted political campaigns, companies and advocacy groups, which helps them prepare for and respond to what is coming.

The company looks not at what is being said but how; there are common patterns in the disinformation campaigns. CEO Gideon Blocq said he and his team have been able to predict disinformation in several recent elections, including last year’s Kentucky and Louisiana gubernatorial contests.

“There were tons of posts about voting machines getting hacked, Republican ballots getting shredded,” he said, “and none of it was true.”

VineSight also flags burgeoning misinformation to major news outlets like The New York Times and PolitiFact. Facebook, Blocq said, has taken down political ads based on those articles.

Disinformation will continue being a problem through November, said Emily Frye, director of cyber integration at Mitre, a nonprofit that launched an app this year used by 160 local and state election officials to report social media disinformation.

Disinformation tends to follow topics that are trending, she said. Before Super Tuesday, for example, posts falsely claimed voters should not show up to polling places, but expect an emergency absentee ballot in the mail instead.

Throughout the primary season, countless anecdotes circulated on social media about voter fraud and the dangers of mail-in voting. These anecdotes get generalized, and voters begin to think there is an actual problem when one might not exist.

Mahood said the California secretary of state’s office has a better relationship with social media companies, but there is still room for improvement.

The companies still face a learning curve, said Vandewalker of the Brennan Center. Artificial intelligence and machine learning may end up silencing legitimate voices or even someone flagging false information. Nuanced issues need a sophisticated response, he said, and the way these companies react often can lead to false positives.

Facebook said it continues to focus on building relationships with local officials to register 4 million new voters this year and take down election-related content that violates its policies, including cases in which posts misrepresent how and when to vote or affects the ability to register to vote.

“State and local election officials are doing critical work to protect elections and encourage civic participation,” said Eva Guidarini, Facebook’s state and local politics and government manager, in an email. “We look forward to continuing to support their efforts by connecting people on our platform with authoritative information about voting and conducting the largest voting information campaign in American history.”