Experts: Disinformation poses greatest threat to the election

Cybersecurity and coronavirus do not worry nonpartisan election experts as much as disinformation does

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Posted October 13, 2020 at 6:00am

With less than one month to go before one of the most consequential elections in American history, experts are watching to see how well the complex and sometimes unwieldy U.S. election machinery performs across three areas: cybersecurity, physical constraints necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the danger posed by disinformation. 

While federal and state officials have taken significant steps since 2016 to address cybersecurity and physical security, the absence of a strong federal effort to combat disinformation about elections remains the biggest concern, experts said. 

Cybersecurity emerged as one of the main weaknesses in the 2016 election when Russian spies tried to penetrate election systems in all 50 states. Since then, several federal agencies have beefed up countermeasures to stop a repeat of similar attempts.

Physical voting in person is being reduced by the threat of COVID-19 infection to voters and election workers. In the past nine months, states and local jurisdictions responsible for conducting federal elections have ramped up efforts to support a surge in voting by mail, despite Congress not providing any additional funding, as poll workers and voters seek to avoid crowded physical spaces because of the pandemic. 

That leaves the danger of disinformation and misinformation about many aspects of the election that experts say has not been adequately addressed and therefore worries them the most.  And unlike cybersecurity threats or difficulties posed by the pandemic, disinformation is both a foreign threat and, it appears, a key part of President Donald Trump’s campaign strategy. 

Trump’s “entire strategy is based on process disinformation in this election,” said Graham Brookie, managing editor and director of the nonpartisan Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, which tracks online disinformation campaigns. “His stated strategy is to basically spread disinformation about voter fraud, about when, where and how to vote in the middle of the pandemic.” 

[Russian hackers tied to 2016 elections now target 2020 race, Microsoft says]

Trump deployed a similar strategy in 2016, alleging in October of that year that Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, Democrats and nonwhite voters were colluding to deny him a victory in what he termed was a “rigged” election at “many polling places.” Then as now, Trump refused to say if he would accept the outcome of the election if he did not win. This year, Trump has repeatedly said without citing any particular evidence that mail-in ballots automatically lead to fraudulent voting, even though he and his family members as well as many hundreds of thousands of Republicans vote by mail. Voters in many Western states, including Oregon, Washington and Utah, vote only by mail, and there has been no evidence of fraud. 

In his first debate with former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump falsely alleged that absentee ballots had been “dumped in rivers” and “creeks.” Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s press secretary, later said Wisconsin police had found absentee ballots in a “ditch.” Days later, Meagan Wolfe, director of the state’s elections commission, said no absentee ballots were found. 

Bot wars

Trump’s tweets about fraud have been amplified by digital robots, or bots, many of them from outside the United States, as well as by his supporters within the country.

“I think misinformation remains a tough nut to crack,” said Emily Frye, co-director of the election integrity project at Mitre, a federally funded research organization that has designed an app to help state and local officials flag and combat misinformation. “We are still really grappling with this issue.” 

It’s not just Trump acting on his own to spread disinformation, according to a recent report. In the first six months of the disinformation campaign beginning in early 2020, “the Republican National Committee and staff from the Trump campaign appear repeatedly and consistently on message at the same moments, suggesting an institutionalized rather than individual disinformation campaign,” the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University said in an Oct. 1 report.  

The report, titled “Mail-in Voter Fraud: Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign,” states that messages by Trump, the Republican Party and his supporters are amplified by a right-wing “media ecosystem, primarily Fox News and talk radio functioning in effect as party press.”

Public opinion polls from September show that half of Republican voters now agree with Trump that “election fraud is a major concern with expanded mail-in voting during the pandemic,” the Harvard report said. 

Contrary to common perceptions that disinformation campaigns originate only from outside the country, the Harvard researchers cited their 2018 study, “Network Propaganda,” which found that “Fox News and Donald Trump’s own campaign were far more influential in spreading false beliefs than Russian trolls or Facebook clickbait artists.”

“This dynamic appears to be even more pronounced in this election cycle, likely because Donald Trump’s position as president and his leadership of the Republican Party allow him to operate directly through political and media elites, rather than relying on online media,” the Harvard researchers wrote. 

For their latest work, the researchers said they analyzed “fifty-five thousand online media stories, five million tweets, and seventy-five thousand posts on public Facebook pages garnering millions of engagements.” 

The Kremlin remains

Although Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to curb foreign influence operations on their platforms, Kremlin-backed Russia Today, or RT, “continues to draw a large American audience” through conservative websites that have agreed to distribute RT’s content, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. Publications such as RealClearPolitics, National Review, the Daily Caller and others routinely carry links to RT material, according to the report. 

Nor is it just the president and Republican Party leaders; even top federal officials and Cabinet agencies have been co-opted into spreading disinformation or watering down documented threats from Russia, the Atlantic Council’s Brookie said. 

The Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the State Department have all tried to downplay their own agencies’ assessments that Russia is backing the Trump campaign. 

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency within the Department of Homeland Security remains one of the few trustworthy federal agencies, Brookie said. 

But “I don’t trust anything that senior officials are saying about foreign interference,” Brookie said. “I don’t trust anything from” Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, Attorney General William Barr or national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Brookie said. 

Unlike efforts to strengthen cybersecurity around election systems, there is no strong federal response to combating disinformation, and the job has fallen largely to nonprofit groups, academic researchers and local election officials, Brookie said. 

The spread of disinformation is probably “going to get worse in the next few weeks, and can get even worse in the days after Nov. 3,” he said. “Donald Trump calling the election rigged will remain long after he is either in his second term or out of office.”