Misinformation Campaigns and Threats are Undermining Confidence in U.S. Elections, Official Says

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CISA is ramping up efforts to defend voting systems from outside intrusion, but the spread of online misinformation and threats against election officials still damage faith in the electoral process.

Kim Wyman, senior election security advisor for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday that threats against election officials and the spread of online misinformation about the voting process are compromising efforts to ensure safe and secure elections across the United States. 

The hearing came after the Department of Justice earlier this week provided an update on the work of the agency’s Election Threats Task Force, which was launched last year to investigate and combat threats of violence and harm made against election officials and workers. Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite, who leads DOJ’s Criminal Division, told the committee that the task force—which includes CISA, several DOJ divisions, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division—has so far reviewed approximately 1,000 threatening communications, with roughly 11% of those messages meeting the threshold for a federal criminal investigation.

Wyman noted in her testimony that America “faces a continuing threat from foreign cyber and influence operations targeting U.S. election infrastructure and voters,” but said that doxxing and threats of violence will make it more difficult to recruit election workers. And the lingering belief in some political corners that the U.S. election system is corrupt or rigged is already being weaponized in some instances by foreign adversaries looking to capitalize on divisive conspiracy theories. 

Committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-Ill., cited the case of Lori Augino, the former director of elections for Washington state, who had her home address, contact information and a photograph of herself superimposed with crosshairs posted on a website called “Enemies of the People,'' after she defended the accuracy of the 2020 election. The FBI and CISA issued a statement in December 2020 saying they possessed “highly credible information indicating Iranian cyber actors almost certainly were responsible for the creation” of the site, which they said was part of an Iranian effort to “undermine public confidence in the U.S. electoral process.”

Wyman, who previously served as Washington’s secretary of state from 2013 to 2021, said that CISA is working with DOJ and other law enforcement partners to investigate instances of doxxing and threats of violence against election officials and workers, as well as working to ensure that those individuals “are mindful of what they have out on the Internet.” 

Election officials and workers continue to remain concerned about the spread of misinformation and disinformation online, believing that this content is helping to fuel ongoing conspiracies about the accuracy and security of U.S. elections. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., cited polling of local election officials conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice which found that 95% of respondents believed that social media was largely responsible for spreading misinformation about elections. Blumenthal said that these social media platforms “have the resources, access, knowledge and power to do more” when it comes to responding to threats against election workers and officials. 

Polite said that social media platforms have been a significant source of “transmitting these communications” under review by the task force, which is why the task force has already reached out to many of these companies for their assistance and support. 

“These are the types of cases that cannot be done in isolation,” Polite said. “We also need the assistance of those social media platforms, quite frequently, in detecting and reporting these communications going forward.”

Wyman told Blumenthal that one of CISA’s top priorities is making the American public aware of the fact that bad actors are using online misinformation “to undermine people’s confidence in our elections and to try to, quite frankly, put Americans against each other and sow discord.” But when asked whether social media companies could do more on their own to combat these threats, Wyman said that the responses from some election deniers are indicative of a far larger problem. 

“I don’t know that there’s ever going to be enough that we can do,” Wyman said, adding that she’s helped manage and oversee elections on the state and local levels for 30 years and had never before witnessed the type of misplaced and sustained anger directed at election officials and workers this long after an election was held. 

Even as threats against election officials and workers remain a top priority for CISA and DOJ ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, Wyman said that CISA is also taking a number of steps to safeguard voting systems from outside intrusion. These efforts include sharing actionable information about threats and risks to election infrastructure with state and local officials and “redoubling our efforts to promote cyber hygiene practices,” with a particular focus on “smaller and mid-sized jurisdictions around the country that oftentimes have difficulty making cyber security investments, but which are so critical to the election ecosystem.”

CISA’s ongoing efforts to safeguard state and local voting systems won praise from some of the committee’s senators, who viewed them as critical steps necessary for restoring broader faith in the results of U.S. elections. 

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., who previously served as California’s secretary of state from 2015 to 2021, lauded CISA as a critical partner in helping the Golden State achieve a safe and secure election in 2020 that saw a record number of Californians casting ballots. 

“That’s what I really hope that this sort of collaboration between CISA and state and local election partners is continuing to do,” Padilla added.