The 2016 U.S. presidential election was a wake-up call that brought the issue of election security front and center for many Americans. Since then, there’s been a big concern around the existential risks facing our democratic system. In 2016, we saw a wide range of attacks – from email leaks to social media propaganda to attacks on voting systems in 39 states – that left many wondering about what risks we could be facing in the recent 2018 midterm elections.
Although the midterms passed with fewer apparent cyber incidents than in 2016, in reality, the extent of any illicit activity may not be known for some time. Only in December 2018 did the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) belatedly reveal the organization was breached the previous April, and the email accounts of four top NRCC aides compromised.
With the scope and types of attacks constantly evolving, it’s clear there’s no end in sight for election interference. Every election that passes by continues to raise the stakes of election security and magnify cyber threats in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election.
But it’s not all malware, phishing and breaches. There’s another type of threat that could prove more detrimental to U.S. elections than cyberattacks: influence operations. More broadly, influence operations – such as those that have flooded Twitter and other social media platforms – rely on accounts that spread propaganda and disinformation with the goal of influencing American opinions, and, ultimately, voting decisions.
Inauthentic accounts are typically at the root of these campaigns. Between April and September 2018, Facebook alone removed 1.5 billion fake accounts. While social media companies have made strides in combatting fake accounts, the problem persists. So far, these companies have mainly sought to take down accounts on an as-discovered basis, such as when Facebook deleted more than 600 accounts that were meant to influence politics in August 2018. More recently, there’s been increased pressure to build tools that detect and disable fake accounts before they cause problems, such as tools Instagram developed to help identify accounts that buy likes and followers.
Other measures that are meant to help users determine what is true on social media have been implemented for several years, such as a sign of verification for celebrities, media publications or brands’ accounts. However, even these can be faked by inauthentic profiles. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter all use a white checkmark with a blue border to indicate an account is verified, which can be easily mimicked if people aren’t paying close attention.
Influence operations are not restricted just to social media. During election season, it’s very common for political candidates and parties to send emails to voter groups, which means it can be quite easy for inauthentic groups to send false emails in an attempt to influence these voters. Receiving an email that appears to be from a preferred candidate – or, potentially worse, an opposing candidate – can easily affect how a citizen chooses to vote when the polls open, especially if that email is filled with disinformation. Unfortunately, people often fail at recognizing spoofed emails and are more likely to believe phony emails that appear authored by the political parties with whom they affiliate. Moreover, both Democrats and Republicans are about 15 percent more likely to believe fake news headlines that are ideologically aligned to them.
Ultimately, what makes influence operations so difficult to combat is that there are no clear defense steps or fail-safe products to secure against this type of attack. Only with increased awareness, education and due diligence will people be able to protect themselves from the spread of disinformation tailored to influence their perceptions and thereby their votes. Whether on social media, email or any other place people are choosing to get information about an upcoming election and its candidates, it’s important that people exercise critical thinking skills and remain vigilant in fact-checking the news, posts and messages they’re consuming on a daily basis. When we go to the movies, we allow our minds to do a “suspension of disbelief” trick that turns off our logic and skepticism for us to enjoy the fiction. I recommend that we all employ the opposite of this “suspension of belief” when reading the news or posts about political candidates or elections.
Nick Bilogorskiy, Juniper Networks