LIMA — As the Nov. 3 presidential election nears, state officials are gearing up for one of the most difficult elections in modern times, and the American people will play a part in ensuring election results stay safe from outside influence.
Six months after taking office in 2019, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose began updating the state’s election cybersecurity protections, issuing a lengthy security directive back in June 2019 to ensure election systems were safe from outside attacks.
“It was a big task,” LaRose said. “We gave (the county boards of elections) six months to do a year of work.”
This past spring, those protections helped Ohio track any threats during the state’s most recent primary.
Today, the threat has evolved.
As LaRose and his Ready for November Task Force outlined during a meeting this week, a heightened disinformation campaign, propagated in part by foreign actors, is now being undertaken to undermine faith in American government, its elections and its institutions.
Matt Olney, director of Talos Threat Intelligence, explained that Russia is now actively spreading targeted information to foment outrage and distrust as American citizens actively tangle with a pandemic, ecological disasters, an economic recession and mass protests in a number of metropolises. The end goal is to destroy democratic processes and ideals.
“The thing about this fight for disinformation is that it’s not being fought in Washington, but it is a foreign adversary that’s involved. More so than any other conflict that I have studied this is a fight between average everyday Americans and a foreign adversary,” Olney said.
The primary way this operation is being conducted is through targeted messaging and social media, Olney said. By taking advantage of emotional reactions to exaggerated claims, outside adversaries are “hacking human minds” and spreading disinformation that ultimately leads citizens to pull away from the civic process. Over time, government loses its connection to its people, and democratic principles are abandoned over time.
“(Spreading democracy) is a key part of our geopolitical objects. And by combating that, (foreign adversaries) are limiting not just our influence globally, but also limiting what the government can do,” Olney said. “If (government) doesn’t have the support of the people, if you don’t believe in the government that’s out there, that government is going to be less capable to face the problems of the world. And our adversaries know that.”
The only way to combat such influence, Olney said, is to proactively identify what is happening and encouraging behaviors that stop the spread of disinformation, especially on social media platforms.
“The most pernicious and dangerous disinformation is disinformation you agree with, right?” Olney said. “When you see something on Twitter or Facebook, and it really gets to you and you’re like, ‘I believe in that issue, and that person is absolutely right. And it’s funny and I’m going to retweet it because it agrees with what’s in my head and the way I view the world.’ That’s the most dangerous moment.
“There are whole organizations — not just foreign adversaries, domestically as well in politics — that thrive on that disinformation, on supplying you false, misleading information just because it makes you more likely to vote for their thought. And that’s ethically wrong. It’s fundamentally wrong.”
Such hyperbole is common among political actors of all types, and it has been for decades. This year, however, the hyperbole has been increased as one side reacts and counter-reacts against another causing a reverberation of exaggerations down the line while confusing any original points made. Throughout it all, foreign adversaries have been stoking the outrage while encouraging distrust of those providing data and expertise.
LaRose gave an example of when his own office released a 48-point plan to to help county boards of elections prep for in-person voting during a pandemic. Both sides used the heavily-sourced document to blame the other for alleged misdeeds.
Because voters have been encouraged to wear facial masks when going to the polls, those on the right said the office was “mask-shaming” voters. At the same time, those on the left said the office was making it dangerous for others to vote since mask-wearing wasn’t strictly required, LaRose said.
“I say this lovingly for my fellow politicians, because anybody who runs for office is just wired to try to do things to generate attention for themselves. It’s kind of what you do. It’s on social media. It’s in person,” LaRose said. “We need to resist the temptation to sort of grab the hyperbole every chance we get. We need to resist the temptation to sort of go for the sensational thing as it relates to election’s administration.”
LaRose encouraged those active on social media to take a longer look at alleged quotes and statements before actively sharing them. A good rule of thumb is to at least locate the original source before hitting the “like” button.
For example, disinformation about election safety, processes and results can be found at most county election board websites, which all share a .gov web address. Those citing election factoids from outside these websites may be getting their info from incorrect sources.
“I want to make a bumper sticker that says, ‘Think before you share,’” LaRose said.
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.