May 11 2021

Secretaries of State Call for Help on Election Disinformation

The threat of disinformation and misinformation campaigns is not going away, officials warn.

The 2020 election season is in the rearview mirror, but the misinformation environment it spawned is not. Secretaries of state across the country are concerned about that as they look to continue to enhance their cybersecurity efforts ahead of the next round of federal elections.

Misinformation is false information that is spread, regardless of the intent to mislead; disinformation, by contrast, is false information (usually spread by a foreign government or intelligence agency) that is designed to deliberately mislead.

In April, a bipartisan group of 11 secretaries of state called on the Department of Homeland Security to help them do more to combat foreign disinformation campaigns around elections.

In a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Brandon Wales, the acting director of DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the secretaries of state praised CISA’s efforts to combat election disinformation but called for those efforts to be enhanced.

Secretaries of State Warn on Foreign Election Interference

The letter came on the heels of an unclassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which concluded that the governments of Russia and Iran sought to influence the U.S. presidential elections in 2020 and undermine the public’s confidence in the electoral process.

The intelligence community found no indications that foreign actors attempted to “alter any technical aspect of the voting process” such as voter registration, ballot casting, vote tabulation or the reporting of results. There were “some successful compromises of state and local government networks prior to Election Day” that were part of a “broader campaign targeting U.S. networks and not directed at the election,” though Russia and Iran spread “false or inflated claims about alleged compromises of voting systems to try to undermine public confidence in election processes and results.”

The intelligence community report focuses mainly on the ways in which foreign governments sought to influence narratives and public perceptions about President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. “A key element of Moscow’s strategy this election cycle was its use of proxies linked to Russian intelligence to push influence narratives — including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden,” the ODNI report states.

The secretaries of state wrote in their letter to DHS that the ODNI report makes clear “how significant the disinformation threat to the electoral process was last year, noting Iran and Russia conducted sizable operations to undermine Americans’ confidence in the system.” They also noted that the report highlights that “at least Russia almost certainly will continue to use disinformation to undermine our faith in elections.”

“There have been some good and bad days in the election community since November. On one hand, election officials successfully ran multiple elections during a pandemic,” they wrote. “The general election was the most secure in recent history. On the other hand, because of disinformation, some Americans now lack confidence in the electoral process. This is unfortunate and extremely concerning. Elections are a core pillar of our democracy. Without confidence in the system, our country faces great challenges ahead.”

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, led the letter, and it was signed by Democratic secretaries of state in California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, and Alaska Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer, who oversees elections in the state, both Republicans, also signed the letter.

“But these problems do not mean CISA’s counter disinformation efforts — its support for states and individual actions — were unsuccessful. In fact, the opposite is true,” they wrote. “Without this work and state initiatives supported by CISA, we are confident significantly more Americans would doubt the electoral process. And we are confident the country would be in a significantly worse place.”

The secretaries of state wrote that the effort to “fortify Americans’ trust in elections” is “one of the most important issues facing our country.”

“Doing so will require countering disinformation on the electoral process, and state election officials need CISA’s help to do so,” they wrote. “CISA must not only continue its counter disinformation work — but increase it.”

MORE FROM STATETECH: How did state and local officials keep the 2020 elections secure?

CISA Addresses Election Disinformation Efforts

The secretaries of state wrote that CISA has a responsibility to protect election infrastructure and that it is “essential to strengthen and maintain secure, functioning, and resilient critical infrastructure.”

Traditionally, they noted, this has meant enhancing physical security and cybersecurity. “But the world has changed and so have the threats and the defenses necessary to counter them,” they wrote. “Addressing disinformation on the electoral process and renewing confidence in it is required to ensure its security.”

In late April, in celebration of National Superhero Day, CISA released its second graphic novel, part of the “Resilience Series,” to educate the public on the dangers and risks associated with disinformation and misinformation campaigns.

“Disinformation campaigns are a direct threat to our democracy and impact each and every one of us,” Wales said in a statement. “The Resilience Series is another way we raise awareness of the dangers and risks associated with the spread of false information online meant to disrupt our way of life and sow discord in our communities. You don’t have to be a superhero to stop the spread of disinformation, but as these graphic novels show, we all have a role to play.”

CISA’s first graphic novel, Real Fake, was released in October 2020 and “demonstrates how threat actors capitalize on political and social issues (especially around election cycles) to undermine public confidence by causing chaos, confusion, and division,” the agency says.CISA says it “encourages everyone to consume information they receive or come across with care.” That includes “practicing media literacy — including verifying sources, seeking alternative viewpoints, and finding trusted sources of information,” which the agency says are “the most effective strategy in limiting the effect of disinformation.”

As the Associated Press reported after virtual meetings earlier this year of the National Association of Secretaries of State and National Association of State Election Directors, election officials are “grappling with ways they can counter waves of misinformation in the 2022 midterms and beyond related to voting procedures and the accuracy of election results.”

JJ Gouin/Getty Images

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