State officials say they have solid plans to guard election systems across the country from potential cyberattacks by foreign adversaries during this year’s midterms. They are less sure how to counter another threat: online disinformation about how to cast a vote.
Election administrators are increasingly grappling with two kinds of threats. On one hand, they need to ward off cyberattacks on targets such as voting machines or registration databases. U.S. intelligence officials say there is no evidence votes were altered during the 2016 election cycle. Officials also want to prevent voters from becoming confused by deliberately false information—such as fake instructions on how to vote—distributed on the internet, particularly after alleged Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
Officials said in interviews that the latter threat—disinformation—is harder to identify and block, and could undermine the electoral process in intangible ways by eroding voters’ faith in the system.
“It doesn’t actually have to change a vote, but it sows chaos and misinformation,” said Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State.
Such efforts can come from domestic actors as well as foreign operatives, experts say, and it can be difficult to identify who is responsible.
In 2016, for example, some
accounts pushed messages instructing Democrats to vote by text, which isn’t allowed in any state. The accounts shared photo-shopped images that resembled genuine get-out-the-vote material produced by
campaign, including a “Paid for by Hillary for President 2016” advisory.
News reports flagged the fake material, and Twitter worked to remove it. The company later said those tweets didn’t have “obvious Russian origin.”
A Twitter spokesman said that the company has multiple Twitter accounts it can use to debunk disinformation about voting, citing tweets from 2016 and 2017 in which the company reminded users that they “cannot vote via text or tweet.”
recently cited “criminal efforts to suppress voting” and “spreading disinformation” as examples of foreign influence the Federal Bureau of Investigation has seen and is working to counter. Mr. Wray was speaking at a White House briefing on election security attended by senior intelligence officials.
a Democrat, alleged earlier this week that Russian hackers penetrated some voter registration systems in his home state ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, but a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security and the state agency in charge of elections said they weren’t aware of any evidence to support the senator’s claims.
DHS, with support from the Election Assistance Commission, has taken the lead in helping states improve the security of their voting systems, while the FBI is charged with countering foreign influence. Mr. Wray said the FBI is investigating foreign-influence efforts across the country and is increasingly exchanging intelligence with state and local law enforcement and technology companies.
Officials also said states and social-media companies sometimes must take the lead.
Spokespeople for Twitter and
said they have taken steps against the deliberate distribution of false information. Both said they have trained state election officials and candidates about best practices to secure their accounts, and that they are distributing accurate information about how to vote.
Facebook recently announced it had closed 32 fraudulent accounts and pages on its main service and Instagram photo-sharing app linked to political misinformation. The company briefed state election officials and federal authorities about its recent efforts during a conference call on Aug. 6, the Facebook spokesman and DHS confirmed.
Christopher Krebs, who runs DHS’s cyber wing, said that state election officials have experience managing an array of threats.
“Election officials are natural risk managers,” said Mr. Krebs. “They are used to power outages, hurricanes, tornadoes. These things happen every single time there is an election. So what we need to be able to do is help them understand the contours of what foreign influence looks like.”
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee previously released a sampling of tweets, which Twitter provided to the committee, that contained deliberately false information about voting during the 2016 election cycle. One tweet falsely told supporters of Hillary Clinton that they needed around seven different documents verifying their identity to vote. Others wrongly said voters could cast their vote via tweet.
Alabama Secretary of State
a Republican, had to do damage control last year after a rumor spread on social media accusing Democratic Senate candidate
campaign of voter fraud in a special election. Mr. Merrill’s office investigated and concluded that the claim was unsubstantiated but wasn’t able to identify who was responsible, an aide to Mr. Merrill said.
That incident “is one of many examples as to how social media can be used to sow doubts about elections,” Mr. Merrill said.
Tactics such as anonymous fliers and robocalls have long been used to try to keep certain groups from voting, officials said, but the anonymity and speed of social media makes such efforts easier.
“With all the modern types of communication platforms that exist, those seeking to suppress the vote have much more powerful mechanisms to do that,” said California Secretary of State
a Democrat. His office is adding new communications staffers for voter outreach via social media, email and other channels, as well as for coordinating with county officials, using new funding from the state budget.
Several state election officials said that, unlike in 2016, they now have specific points of contact at Facebook and Twitter to report attempts to deceive voters.
Still, officials said the solution is partly up to voters. David Stafford, supervisor of elections in Escambia County, Fla., and a Republican, said voters have “to realize that not everything they see, they should take at face value.”