Online Disinformation Could be the Real Election Threat

Hacking minds is 'highly effective'

Key Takeaways

  • Foreign states are likely to use disinformation campaigns to disrupt the presidential election, experts say. 
  • Russia and other countries are trying to undermine confidence in the election process.
  • Social media giants are trying to prevent disinformation but have limited power to do so, observers say.
"Propaganda" in neon letters.
DigiPub / Getty Images 

This week’s presidential election is vulnerable to online disinformation campaigns by foreign governments and groups, experts say. 

Russia, China, Cuba, and other countries are trying to influence results and undermine confidence in the election process. Groups from these countries have done everything from using fake social media accounts to planting fake press releases. These efforts are hard to defend against, experts say. 

Current disinformation campaigns are "highly effective," Steve Grobman, Chief Technology Officer of the antivirus firm McAfee, said in a video interview.

"Voters need to be on guard," he added. "Email can be spoofed. Websites can be spoofed. If you get information through something like email, or social media, that is related to information on where, when, or how to vote, be skeptical, validate through multiple sources, start from a trusted source, like going to your Secretary of State's website to find your local election authority. These are things that the general public can do to help ensure that this information is neutralized in persuading their vote.” 

"The question is less about whether we're doing enough and more about how we should go about combating the problem."

US officials and independent experts have been warning for months that foreign nations are trying to spread disinformation. On Tuesday, Gen. Paul M. Nakasone, commander of US Cyber Command told reporters that foreign misinformation attacks might ramp up if "there is a clearly defined winner" by Wednesday.

However, if tallying votes take a long time then there could be more foreign interference efforts, he said. "There is a period of time where we are watching this carefully to see if our adversaries are going to try to take advantage if there is a close vote."

It may be weeks or months before experts can say if disinformation campaigns were effective in altering elections. "The actual results regarding the election will be impossible to quantify clearly," Jaehnig said. "Still, it could be safely said that social media users are receiving a steady diet of stories that reinforce thinking already in place whether it’s true or not."

Progress has been made in combating the problem since 2016 after Russian disinformation efforts were uncovered, experts say.

"However, the question becomes whether or not that translated to electoral advantages for Donald Trump in the narrow marginal populations that handed him victory or whether there will be similar advantages or similar changes in political conversations this year," Christopher Whyte, an assistant professor in the homeland security and emergency preparedness program at Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an email interview.

"It’s unclear at this time. But that question is one of magnitude. These campaigns have clearly had an effect on the American democratic process by various measures," he added.

US map overlaid with binary code.
Matt Anderson Photography / Getty Images 

Whether foreign states are pushing for a particular candidate to win is less than clear, experts say. Disinformation campaigns are about a foreign state’s national interests not support for a particular candidate, Whyte said. "Russia’s general support for Trump in most influence activities over the past five years simply corresponds with a broader strategy of encouraging disruptive politics and social narratives," he said.

"Given this, though China is generally seen as preferring a Biden presidency because it reduces uncertainty on a number of fronts, Beijing is not interfering on his behalf," he added. 

Social Media Battles Disinformation

Social media platforms are frantically trying to keep up with the disinformation campaigns. Facebook officials said they would label any posts from candidates claiming a premature victory with a notice that "counting is still in progress and no winner has been determined."

Post-election, Facebook will ban any new political ads from running to try to reduce misinformation about the outcome. Twitter says it will label or remove any similar post, to try to keep false claims from spreading easily. "Social media outlets do what they can to stem the flow of misinformation," Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate, Comparitech, said in an email interview.

"They moderate content posted to their platforms, but typically only what is flagged by users or caught by automated systems scanning for suspicious activity." he said. "They also investigate and purge coordinated misinformation campaigns. Posts can be removed or labeled, and accounts can be suspended or terminated.

"Unfortunately, the sheer volume of content posted on social media and social networks' reluctance to take sides in an election mean some misinformation is bound to slip through," Bischoff added.

Chinese hacking, conceptual illustration.
Steven McDowell / Science Photo Library / Getty Images 

"Most social media platforms have been struggling, yet they are getting better at distinguishing between misinformation campaigns as this has progressed," Drew Jaehnig, a former Department of Defense IT executive and current industry practice leader of the public sector at software company Bizagi, said in an email interview.  "However, they will be unlikely to capture all the things on their platforms. Portions of the national security apparatus are also heavily involved in attempting to stop this attack on its sovereignty."

There’s only so much tech companies can do to combat disinformation, experts say. "To counteract disinformation, people need to hear a correcting message from a source that they trust which is why the first step in effective information warfare is to undermine that trust," Jaehnig said. "This is a hard nut to crack at this juncture. Another aspect is training people to think critically and guard against information that is false or misleading." 

Who Decides What’s Misinformation?

Preventing misinformation is difficult in a democracy that is used to the free exchange of ideas, experts say. "The question is less about whether we're doing enough and more about how we should go about combating the problem," Bischoff said.

"To what extent do we want to give social media or the government the power to censor speech and decide what is true and what is false?" he asked. "Inevitably, doing so will create double standards and censorship of free speech. Ultimately, we as individuals should rely on ourselves to evaluate what we see on social media and not depend on corporations or governments, which have their own agendas and biases, to do it for us."

Fake information online is hard to refute because it's often being shared by friends or neighbors who you instinctively trust, experts say. "When it comes to sharing information on social media, the exposure garnered from sharing lends authority to the content, regardless of how outrageous it might be," Bill Swearingen, Cyber Strategist at the cybersecurity firm IronNet, said in an email interview. 

"There is a period of time where we are watching this carefully to see if our adversaries are going to try to take advantage if there is a close vote."

Adding to the challenge of combatting disinformation is the many news sources Americans consume which are often present wildly different views, experts say.

"Voters and public officials can disregard obvious disinformation or compare it against credible news sources for accuracy, but this is, of course, easier said than done," Jacob Ansari, Senior Manager of Schellman & Company, LLC, said in an email interview. "Voters in this election, like nearly everyone else, largely live inside their own information bubbles, which may or may not include credible news and information, and thus, may or may not compete with aggressive disinformation."

Whoever wins the presidency this year, it’s clear that disinformation campaigns are here to stay. Hopefully, government agencies and tech companies will learn better defense tactics in this new and evolving form of warfare.