By Nick Corasaniti and Davey Alba, The New York Times
Like so many modern election sagas, it started with a tweet.
In 2019, Jena Griswold, the newly installed secretary of state in Colorado, saw a tweet falsely claiming that her state’s election system had been hacked, using a picture of voting equipment as evidence.
“It wasn’t equipment that we even use in the state of Colorado,” Griswold, a Democrat, said. Though her office was able to contact Twitter and take the tweet down within an hour, the flare-up was yet another reminder of just how pervasive election misinformation had become since the 2016 presidential election.
To prevent deceptive tweets, doctored videos and other forms of misinformation from undermining Colorado’s elections, Griswold is starting a new initiative that will run ads on social media and expand digital outreach to help voters identify foreign misinformation.
The operation in Colorado comes as Griswold and other secretaries of state are bracing for a deluge of misinformation about voting as Election Day draws closer, forced to defend a decentralized election system that has shown a particular weakness to the effects of rumors and outright lies.
In September, the FBI issued a joint statement with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, warning that foreign actors and cybercriminals are likely to “spread false information in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions.”
Griswold’s new initiative builds on an operation she set up this year within the secretary of state’s office. She hired Nathan Blumenthal, a former counterterrorism official at the Department of Homeland Security, to run the three-person operation, which in turn has hired outside vendors to help identify misinformation online, whether it is going viral on social media or lurking on obscure message boards.
The office will also buy Google ads against relevant search terms whenever a piece of misinformation begins to gain attention in an effort to help slow its spread. For example, if someone were to claim Colorado’s ballots were lost in a fire, the office could buy ads off searches for “Colorado ballot fire” and get the top results, with the ads providing real information. And it is kicking off a public awareness campaign using Facebook ads that will direct voters to check the secretary’s website, using the tagline “Opinions are fun, facts are better.”
Yet while Griswold is undertaking this new effort, and statewide election officials in states like California and Ohio operate similar programs, not all states have set up operations to combat misinformation.
That is partly because state election offices are among the most overworked and underfunded public agencies in the country, especially this year. When multiple nonpartisan organizations estimated that state offices would need approximately $2 billion in funding for the 2020 election, Congress gave them just $400 million as part of its pandemic relief efforts.
Major social media platforms have taken up some of the slack with their own plans to halt the spread of misinformation. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all cracked down on pages promoting the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, and Twitter said it was changing some basic features to slow the way information flows on its network.
But Griswold faulted both the federal and corporate responses to misinformation.
“Absolutely not enough is being done,” she said. “We have a lack of leadership in the White House and the Senate. We have good pieces of legislation just sitting in the queues that have not been moved forward.”
In 2018, Alex Padilla, secretary of state of California, created the first state-level anti-misinformation operation, the Office of Election Cybersecurity.
It established a statewide email distribution list from the secretary’s office to inform voters about misinformation. It also created VoteSure, an initiative that established a reporting mechanism for misinformation and ran voter-education ads on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Since 2018, Padilla said, one of the toughest challenges has been the sheer volume of misinformation about elections.
“There is a number of persons behind it, both foreign and domestic, and the technology to amplify so quickly; it’s frustrating to feel like you’re constantly playing catch up,” Padilla, a Democrat, said. “But we’ve been fairly successful in directing people toward the official reliable information.”
Misinformation and security experts said that the initiatives by secretaries of state like Griswold were needed in the effort to shore up faith in elections but that they were also indicative of how the issue had not been properly addressed at the federal level.
“It’s great that state election officials have taken a proactive approach to combat disinformation,” said Melissa Ryan, chief executive of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that researches misinformation. “But it isn’t their job, and it’s work done on top of their likely already strained capacity.”
There is an advantage to running such operations at the state level. Local election officials are more likely to be familiar to voters in their own state and therefore can be effective messengers against misinformation.
“I think this is exactly the sort of operation that all secretaries of state should be running,” said Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “Local officials are often more highly trusted than their federal counterparts.”
Frank LaRose, secretary of state of Ohio, has confronted situations similar to the one Griswold faced in Colorado. In 2019, he recalled, a social media user posted deceptively edited video online, trying to show that he was able to vote multiple times in Ohio.
“Our foreign adversaries know they can’t hack elections, but they can hack voters,” LaRose, a Republican, said. “When it takes its ugliest form is when it encourages people to self-disenfranchise, to make people not want to vote, and that’s where a lot of our efforts have been focused.”
Soon after the 2019 incident, he began instructing members of his office to make misinformation the top priority in their portfolio. He also set up an email address to report misinformation and directed the election offices in all 88 counties in Ohio to sign up for verified Twitter accounts and .gov websites to prevent spoofing. And he began reaching out to trusted community leaders, particularly in minority communities, who could help him get the facts out when misinformation began to take hold.
Griswold has been making similar connections with groups in Colorado, such as Mi Familia Vota, a national Latino voting group, and the Ministerial Alliance, a group of Black religious leaders in Colorado.
But she is also looking beyond Election Day, recognizing that the period of potential uncertainty when results are still being counted is just as vital to combating misinformation as the months leading up to it.
“This isn’t going to stop when the election stops,” Griswold said. “It’s very important that as a nation we really stand up to push back against one of the biggest threats to our democracy and our election system.”
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