Facebook and Twitter have been cracking down on political disinformation during the current election cycle, but there are signs that the fight against fake news has spread to new battlefields, ranging from LinkedIn to text messages.
In Washington state, the Air National Guard has called out its cyberspace operations unit to protect the voting system. And the battle won’t end when the votes are tallied.
“Be aware of the ‘voter fraud’ debate that will inevitably follow the election — no matter the results,” University of Washington information scientist Jevin West, one of the instructors for a “Calling B.S.” class that went viral, told GeekWire in an Election Day email.
In 2016, Facebook and Twitter were the best-known platforms for disinformation and misinformation — the preferred terms, now that the phrase “fake news” has been totally debased by you-know-what. But metrics such as the University of Michigan’s “Iffy Quotient” suggest there’s been no spike in iffy political information on those two social-media platforms this year, as there was during the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath.
The University of Michigan’s Paul Resnick, who presides over the Iffy Quotient, says the reason for that is “probably countermeasures taken by the platforms.” Facebook alone has disabled hundreds of millions of fake accounts, and Twitter has blocked tens of thousands of bots linked to Russian agents.
Just this week, Facebook removed more than 100 meddlesome accounts from its flagship social-media site and Instagram after being tipped off by law enforcement agents. Twitter, meanwhile, said it’s deleted more than 10,000 bot accounts that aimed to discourage Democrats from voting.
An NBC News reporter who found his way into a private chatroom for far-right trolls documented how they’re getting frustrated by Twitter’s roadblocks. But Buzzfeed News found that the purveyors of hyperpartisan news and disinformation have switched over to the LinkedIn career-oriented platform.
“There’s this movement into other platforms that have been quite,” West said.
Another factor may be that it’s trickier for mischief-makers to disrupt an election cycle that doesn’t have a single focus like a presidential race. “If you’re someone creating disinformation, it’s easier to focus on one or two topics,” West said.
Even though the 2018 midterm campaign officially ends today, West advises against letting down your guard.
“The big thing is to watch for the preponderance of hoaxes that occur near election time,” he said. “Those spreading disinformation are looking for other ways to communicate their rumors, and text messaging is becoming a favorite for these groups.”
Nationwide, the rumors are likely to focus around voting irregularities, confrontations and long lines at polling places — all part of an effort to discourage turnout among voters who are on the fence, give people the wrong times or wrong places for voting, and just generally sow discord among the electorate.
West said doctored images are likely to show up on social media. “People could use TinEye to see if the image has been doctored or reused before,” he said.
After the polls close, authorities are bracing for mischief targeting efforts to tally the vote and report the results. Washington state’s paper-based, vote-by-mail system gets around a lot of the problems that typically arise on Election Day. Vote-counting systems, including King County’s, are typically “air-gapped” to guard against hackers.
“There’s no way someone can get into this network,” King County elections supervisor Jerelyn Hampton told GeekWire last week.
Nevertheless, the Washington Air National Guard’s 262nd Cyberspace Operations Squadron is working with the Office of the Secretary of State to make sure the system stays safe. Washington is one of at least three states — along with Wisconsin and Illinois — where the National Guard is on watch for Election Day.
Washington’s secretary of state, Kim Wyman, made the arrangements with the National Guard back in July. “The Guard has been amazing to work with, helping us test our systems and helping us to strengthen our security,” Wyman said in a news release.
“We’re assisting only,” said Col. Kenneth Borchers, commander of the 252nd Cyberspace Operation Group, the parent organization of the 262nd Squadron. “We’re providing advice on cyber security and risk mitigation for Secretary Wyman’s office. This has very much been part of their routine. It’s the latest in a long series of cyber assessments.”
Results are expected to start trickling in around 3 p.m. PT, and the serious TV coverage kicks in around 6 p.m. (If you haven’t already mailed your Washington state ballot, be sure to put it in a designated drop box before 8 p.m.)
On the national level, the Democrats are favored to take control of the House, while the Republicans are favored to retain control of the Senate. But experts say the range of possibilities is so wide that there’s no guaranteed outcome. That makes it all the more important to stay engaged in the process as the votes are verified and the implications of the results sink in. Politics isn’t just a spectator sport.
To make sure you get the full story rather than fakery, check out these tips for evaluating online news. Professors Jevin West and Carl Bergstrom will give a public lecture on “Spotting and Refuting B.S.” at UW’s Kane Hall, Room 130, at 7:30 p.m. PT Wednesday. Advance registration is closed, but standby seating will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis beginning at 6:45 p.m.