• Credit: Shutterstock/ozrimoz
     Credit: Shutterstock/ozrimoz

Public and Private Sectors Team to Fight Election Interference

August 26, 2020
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Social media joins forces with governments to blunt disinformation.


Government and the private sector, particularly social media, are collaborating to forestall election manipulation by outside powers. These efforts aim at preventing disinformation campaigns from gaining a foothold in their steps to affect the upcoming November elections, but they also are maintaining vigilance against direct interference in the electoral process.

The allies in this struggle against election interlopers include the media that find themselves serving as the battleground for information warfare. Global names such as Facebook and Twitter are working with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) to clear the air of disinformation and warn the public of potential election interference. And, as with military defenders against cyberattacks, they are finding that they must continually adjust to stay a step ahead of nation-state adversaries.

“We now refer to our elections as critical infrastructure,” noted Rose Jackson of the Truman National Security Project. Jackson moderated a discussion held under the auspices of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab that featured government and industry officials active in the battle against foreign interference in U.S. elections.

“I’m not sure that the [disinformation] tactics themselves are widely changing,” said Alicia Wanless, co-director, Partnership for Countering Influence Operations, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “What has changed [since 2016] is more coverage of what is happening and a movement by industry and government and others to actually cooperate and do something about this.”

The news media is a major player in this effort, as foreign elements try to use the media to amplify and spread their disinformation. Describing the information environment as an ecosystem comprising networks, Wanless warned that networks “infected or compromised” by a disinformation message run the risk of affecting the wider ecosystem. Conversely, many media outlets may be intimidated by the potential to spread disinformation and thus inhibited in their coverage.

Yoel Roth, head of site integrity for Twitter, said that the media is key in this truth-finding process, and it is helping everyone recognize what foreign interference is when it pops up. This is part of the effort to build a “big tent of people” concerned about these risks and who want to partner to address them.

Roth also noted that the media has been particularly targeted in these contexts. “We’ve seen journalists reached out to by inauthentic media accounts to try to get them to push certain stories,” he stated. “This is a favorite tactic that we’ve seen associated with some threat actors based out of Iran, and we’ve seen journalists be key nodes in the dissemination of information as part of these campaigns, including in the immediate lead up to elections.”

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said his company is seeing adversaries increasingly turn to the media “to be amplifiers for them.” His company has had conversations with colleagues in the media on how to respond, and he cited an example of how reporters in 2018 saw through a planted story and instead reported on the attempt by Russians to sow disinformation.

But Facebook still must deal with its own potential as a disinformation hub. Some individuals and groups are banned from Facebook, and content is removed when it is determined to be false. But a key to preventing an onslaught of disinformation before it emerges is behavior, and Gleicher explained that his company looks for patterns that indicate an account laying the groundwork for a disinformation campaign.

Sometimes content doesn’t violate standards, but the actors’ behavior does, he said. They may fake their identity to build an audience around acceptable content, and then try to deceive people with false information. By focusing on behavior, Facebook can stop them before they put out the deceptive material.

The DHS has a multi-pronged approach to election security, said Matthew Masterson, senior cybersecurity advisor at CISA. Its first focus is on the more than 8,000 election districts across the United States, and its second focus involves working with the campaigns, including the Republican and Democratic national committees. The FBI has the lead in the third focus, which is countering foreign interference. He cited industry assistance in securing what has turned out to be a very atypical election.

“This election was already going to be an election like one that officials haven’t experienced, and then we added a pandemic to it,” he stated. The conversations government has been having with industry on the election process have been critical for CISA to understand how industry is preparing and how government can inform it. “This dynamic environment is so incredibly unusual,” with the changes that came about so quickly, Masterson declared. Government is going to the sources it knows it can trust to keep the public properly informed about the process as transparently as possible.

Masterson cited the recent assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that warned of election interference by Russia to damage the Biden campaign and by China and Iran to damage the Trump campaign. Yet the foreign threat does not currently extend to the election infrastructure, Masterson said, although that is a possibility.

“We have not seen specific targeting of election systems that has been attributable to nation-state actors at this time, but we are cognizant that it is in the playbook,” he stated. “We do see regular scanning and probing of election infrastructures,” which he attributed to better cyber awareness. “Election systems, whether by criminal groups or other malicious actors, remain a target of interest.” CISA is constantly working with local election officials on this issue to stay ahead of potential attackers. “We continue to see targeting of election infrastructure,” Masterson said.

This broad collaboration must continue throughout the election cycle, as panelists warned of potential post-election disinformation. Websites listing vote tallies might be disrupted on election night, and the large number of mail-in votes probably means it will take longer than a single night to determine a winner. All of these processes are prime targets, panelists said.

“We should be talking about election day as just one moment out of a series of moments that will be decisive,” Roth stated. “I worry about the weeks and months after that with the certification of the results.”

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