Test­ing ahead of US elec­tions aims to quell dis­in­for­ma­tion


US elec­tion day ex­er­cises sim­u­lat­ing at­tacks rang­ing from hack­ers to an­thrax to dis­rupt vot­ing show state and lo­cal of­fi­cials will strug­gle to quickly counter false­hoods flood­ing so­cial me­dia, ac­cord­ing to five peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the tests.

The as­sess­ments come as U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials and se­cu­rity an­a­lysts ex­pect an on­slaught of dig­i­tal mis­in­for­ma­tion sur­round­ing the elec­tion on Novem­ber 3. Last week, Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency Di­rec­tor Gen. Paul Naka­sone iden­ti­fied dis­in­for­ma­tion as the big­gest threat to the elec­tion. The sce­nar­ios within the sim­u­la­tions in­cluded: ex­er­cises to test how elec­tion of­fi­cials would re­act to cy­ber-en­abled elec­tri­cal black­outs, fake claims of bal­lot stuff­ing, fake bomb threats against polling sta­tions made from anony­mous call­ers and fake claims of an an­thrax out­break on elec­tion day in spe­cific coun­ties with close re­sults. The tests are crit­i­cal be­cause state and lo­cal of­fi­cials who ad­min­is­ter elec­tions will of­ten be the first re­spon­ders if dis­in­for­ma­tion on so­cial me­dia spreads false in­for­ma­tion and be­gins to mis­lead vot­ers.

These of­fi­cials will also be among the first to re­port these ex­am­ples to so­cial me­dia firms like Face­book and Twit­ter to re­quest the con­tent be re­moved, said Colorado Sec­re­tary of State Jena Gris­wold, who has staff as­signed to com­bat dis­in­for­ma­tion. But even when con­tent is taken down, con­vinc­ing vot­ers the in­for­ma­tion was in­cor­rect re­mains dif­fi­cult. "Will your re­sponse reach the same au­di­ence who was af­fected by the dis­in­for­ma­tion? Can you still ac­tu­ally reach them if the dis­in­for­ma­tion is suc­cess­ful? And is there the risk that the de­nial it­self am­pli­fies the dis­in­for­ma­tion," said Thomas Rid, a dis­in­for­ma­tion ex­pert at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity.

Since 2017, more than 25 states have con­ducted their own sim­u­lated ex­er­cises, also known as "table­tops." The Cy­ber­se­cu­rity and In­fra­struc­ture Se­cu­rity Agency - a di­vi­sion of the Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment - has or­ga­nized a to­tal of 55 ex­er­cises, ac­cord­ing to an agency spokesman. Cy­berea­son, a Bos­ton­based cy­ber­se­cu­rity com­pany, or­ga­nized eight events over the last two years, in­volv­ing both state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials and fed­eral agen­cies, a com­pany spokesman said, with all of it done pro-bono.

Most of the de­tails about the sim­u­la­tion ex­er­cises re­main con­fi­den­tial and guests are dis­cour­aged from speak­ing to the me­dia about them. While elec­tion of­fi­cials al­ways seek to be the main source of vot­ing in­for­ma­tion, it's very dif­fi­cult to do un­der ur­gent cir­cum­stances, ac­cord­ing to New Mex­ico Sec­re­tary of State Mag­gie Toulouse Oliver.

"Over­all try­ing to get folks to know and un­der­stand who their lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials are and how they can get in­for­ma­tion di­rectly from them in a mo­ment of cri­sis is an on­go­ing gap and chal­lenge that we need to fig­ure out," Oliver added. The FBI and Home­land Se­cu­rity Depart­ment said in a pub­lic ser­vice an­nounce­ment on Thurs­day that vot­ers should al­ways "seek out in­for­ma­tion from trust­wor­thy sources, such as state and lo­cal elec­tion of­fi­cials" be­cause of the threat of dis­in­for­ma­tion from "for­eign ac­tors and cy­ber­crim­i­nals."

State elec­tion of­fi­cials have poured mil­lions of dol­lars into dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns to reach vot­ers and by grow­ing their own so­cial me­dia fol­low­ings to rapidly ad­dress fake in­for­ma­tion, Reuters pre­vi­ously re­ported, but progress is slow.

The lead elec­tion of­fi­cial in each state across the coun­try of­ten has less than a few thou­sands so­cial me­dia fol­low­ers who they can im­me­di­ately reach with an on­line post­ing. In Florida, a key bat­tle­ground be­tween Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Joe Bi­den, the Sec­re­tary of State only has about 2100 Twit­ter fol­low­ers and no Face­book ac­count. In Cal­i­for­nia, the Sec­re­tary of State's "CA SOS Vote" Twit­ter ac­count has just 13,000 fol­low­ers. The sce­nar­ios have tested how the elec­tion of­fi­cials in tan­dem with fed­eral part­ners would calm the pub­lic in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion, share ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion and re­tain con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion so that the elec­tion could pro­ceed nor­mally.

They were not in­tended to test whether a spe­cific state or agency would fail, but sev­eral peo­ple in­volved in the sim­u­la­tion told Reuters the ex­pe­ri­ence has proven that the spread of pur­pose­fully in­cor­rect in­for­ma­tion to in­flu­ence voter turnout in cer­tain regions was among the big­gest chal­lenges for elec­tion of­fi­cials to over­come.

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