The risk posed to political campaigns and elections by misinformation, disinformation, security breaches and digital manipulation have never been greater.
And the tools for voters to safeguard our democracy haven’t kept up.
The University of Southern California, in collaboration with Google, has launched the USC Cybersecurity Initiative, which is conducting workshops in all 50 states between now and Election Day to help voters, elected officials and campaigns understand the threat and develop techniques to counter them.
On Thursday, the workshop will come virtually to Maine with an online event that’s free and open to all. (Disclosure: I will be participating in one of the panels, but you can just mute me if you like.)
Gov. Janet Mills is expected to deliver opening remarks via video and there will be panels during the two-hour program focusing on cybersafety, disinformation and misinformation, and crisis communication.
The project is non-partisan. It’s not about helping Democrats, Republicans or independents. As Adam Clayton Powell III, the executive director of the project, says, “our candidate is democracy.”
The goal of the project is to present basic best practices and also identify unique practices from individual states.
“We originally crafted the framework for this initiative to visit all 50 states in person — to train people in campaigns and elections on the best practices in cybersecurity,” Justin Griffin, the managing director of the initiative, said in an interview. “As a result of the pandemic we needed to shift our strategy quickly. … We have seen our audience size and scale increase as a result of these digital workshops. We are on schedule to complete our virtual tour before Election Day 2020, training even more people in our target audience than originally anticipated.”
So far, the workshop has been presented in 27 states, including in New Hampshire in May.
The threat to campaigns and to elections is real, and we are living through unprecedented times with COVID-19.
In Maine, for example, the normal June primary was rescheduled for July 14, and there’s been a surge in absentee ballot requests, which is a safe way for voters to participate by mail.
Along with misinformation and disinformation online, including fake pictures or videos, and ongoing hacking efforts that target candidates, campaigns and staff, there’s a growing interest in how campaigns and voters can protect themselves.
Russian interference in the 2016 election has been well-documented, but the country’s efforts started before that year and continue today.
According to NPR, for six years, “an obscure disinformation campaign by Russian operatives has flooded the Internet with false stories in seven languages and across 300 social media platforms virtually undetected.”
The campaign has included fake news stories and Tweets from government officials to spread Russian propaganda.
Fake photos and videos are everywhere. Just last week, President Donald Trump retweeted a video that had been manipulated of two toddlers. The video had been altered and included a fake CNN headline: “Terrified toddler runs from racist baby,” the Washington Post reported. The video was eventually removed by Facebook and Twitter.
When it comes to cybersecurity, Maine’s paper ballot system is the ultimate safeguard. Not sure it’s possible to hack a piece of paper. But it doesn’t take much imagination to envision hackers targeting news organizations and replacing real election results with fake numbers, or targeting other systems that help to share election information and results.
While the outcome of the election in Maine could eventually be reconstructed, such attacks could create chaos and confusion, and be weaponized to discredit the outcome or call into question the winner.
It’s scary stuff.
But ultimately, the best defense is an informed and prepared electorate. On Thursday, we all have a chance to spend a couple of hours learning how we can do our part to protect democracy. I hope you’ll join the show.
David Farmer is a public affairs, political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s 2014 campaign for governor.