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Federal officials urge vigilance about disinformation ahead of election

Posted at 11:51 PM, Sep 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-24 07:13:16-04

TAMPA, Fla. -- Local and federal officials are working to secure the 2020 elections.

This week, federal officials are raising awareness about the potential threat of disinformation.

The FBI said in 2016 and 2018, there were reports of potential voter suppression through social media.

“There’s been an increasing threat over the last number of years, particularly with respect to what we call malign foreign influence. And that’s with nation-state actors, primarily Russia and China but certainly, other nations as well that are trying to interfere in one capacity or another with our election,” said Special Agent Andrew Sekela. “As we get closer to the election, we expect that certainly there’s the possibility that we’ll see an increase in those malign, foreign-influence operations.”

He said misinformation campaigns can come in a variety of methods, including discrediting campaigns or candidates with false information, or sowing divisiveness.

“They don’t necessarily have a particular political view. They don’t care which side 'wins' the debate. They just want to amplify existing social issues the point where they will actually post online usually pretending to be Americans they will post information online just to sort of inflame people,” he said.

Another concern includes misinformation about Election Day events.

“So for example, putting out information that’s incorrect about certain polling locations or about changes in the Election Day itself or the times when polling places are open. That can actually be a violation of federal law in terms of voter suppression,” Sekela said.

Sekela said voters should consider the motivation behind someone’s post, vet the source and check the facts and source of information.

“There’s no filters when it comes to the internet. Anybody can post anything they want to and that’s one of the challenges we have from an investigative standpoint, we do not conduct investigations based solely on first amendment protected activity with a few limited exceptions,” he said.

This week the FBI and CISA issued a public service announcement, warning foreign actors and cybercriminals are likely to spread disinformation regarding election results.

It states in part:

“Foreign actors and cybercriminals could create new websites, change existing websites, and create or share corresponding social media content to spread false information in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions.

State and local officials typically require several days to weeks to certify elections’ final results in order to ensure every legally cast vote is accurately counted. The increased use of mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 protocols could leave officials with incomplete results on election night. Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy.”

“We’re doing everything we can to ensure the integrity of our elections systems. And again a lot of that comes with briefing and training folks to let them know the kind of techniques that these cyber actors use,” said Sekela.

This year there are expected to be more voters voting by mail.

“It creates some challenges in the sense that there’s another potential way our voting system can be compromised. So we’re well aware of that threat. We’ve been working closely with the US post office with their postal inspection service with their office of inspector general to be prepared for any kinds of threats or complaints we receive related to mail-in ballot fraud,” Sekela said.

The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections is preparing to send more than 350,000 mail ballots to the post office this week.

The supervisor of elections for Hillsborough County, Craig Latimer, said it doesn’t change securing the vote this year.

“We’re very automated. We’ve got the equipment right on site that we put all of the vote-by-mail packages together. It all has barcode readers all kinds of technology, it interfaces with the voter registration system so it’s really seamless for us. All this is is an increase in volume at this point,” Latimer said.

He said they work with the state and federal agencies in helping make sure elections are secure.

“We’re continuously trying to improve what we do. And make sure that we’re keeping up with the latest threats that are out there. We’re looped in very tightly with the department of homeland security, our federal partners, so you know we have a lot that’s going on and we’re constantly testing our systems to make sure they are in fact where they’re supposed to be,” Latimer said.

He said they’re monitoring systems, including with a test of a random sample of tabulators and a test deck to check for accuracy, and with an audit of 100 percent of the ballots after the election.

He also points to the server.

“Every county in this state contracts with a vendor that is a vendor for Homeland Security and they monitor the traffic in and out of our offices. Most importantly what people need to know, is that server that houses the election management system is a stand-alone air gap system, it is not connected to my system at all,” Latimer said.

You can learn more about efforts to secure the election here.