By Anna Grace Usery
Just as the American public faced cybersecurity attacks in the 2016 presidential election, experts warn that adversaries are already prodding the shell of democracy as the nation heads into the 2020 election year.
An added challenge is COVID-19. Traditional means of elections and voter gathering may be challenged, leaving America’s already weakened immune system vulnerable, including Mississippi.
Though low and high risks are imminent, a nonpartisan group from the University of Southern California is attempting to help states navigate this danger. The Election Cybersecurity Initiative, thanks to a grant from Google, is hosting Zoom workshops with states to share points from experts about cybersecurity, misinformation and disinformation and crisis communication. Without political affiliations, they proudly tout their motto – “Democracy is our candidate.” The workshop will begin at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, May 21 and last for two hours via Zoom.
Adam Clayton Powell III, the initiative’s executive director, hopes election and poll workers, campaign managers, state and local officials, students, academics and journalists can take the information given and disseminate it across the state.
“We’re using this as a learning experience for ourselves. It’s a two-way learning experience,” he said.
Powell reiterated that the threat from adversaries to the U.S. is real and has already begun popping up on social media. In 2016, Russian bots encouraged African-Americans to boycott the election and encouraged right-wing voters to create more controversy, according to an article by Reuters. Without commenting on the specific content we may see in 2020, Powell said they are already seeing some new tactics of disinformation.
Two new things occurring months leading up to the election include an undefined planned or unplanned effort by Russia, China and Iran to demean the 2020 election. Russia will first publish disinformation, China will concur with Russia and Iran will reiterate the information.
“Misinformation and disinformation changes almost daily. Russia, China and Iran change their tactics daily. They have the R&D (research and development) budgets and lots of people,” Powell said.
Another new technique Powell said Russia is taking advantage of is franchising. Essentially, Russians will pay people in the U.S. to create social media content that is fake in an effort to diminish democracy.
“They’re going after Instagram and Facebook with content not disclosed as coming from outside the U.S.,” Powell said. “We really have to be prepared for some innovative attempts to cast out democracy.”
In all, experts estimate at least 70 countries are now hacking in the U.S. Most attacks have been relatively low-level, but Powell said the intelligence community estimates a larger attack coming late October, early November. A close example would be of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “hard evidence” that Russians hacked her emails from her parliamentary office from 2012-2015, according to an article from Business Insider. The FBI is currently seeking the perpetrator’s arrest.
Plans set in place to intercept threats to the U.S. are reassuring, Powell said.
“The silver lining is we really have created much stronger of a defense than there was four years ago…many more layers of defense. A good example is the National Guard in each state is actively engaging in cyber defense,” Powell said.
Ellen Meacham, a longtime Mississippi journalist, author and instructor of journalism at the University of Mississippi is a panelist during Thursday’s workshop. She’ll be speaking about how critical monitoring disinformation is in a state that relies heavily on a traditional voting system.
“Mississippi is lucky to have a network of committed people from both parties who work hard and care about the integrity of our elections,” she said. “This training aims to expand that network so we have as many and ears on the ground as possible.”
The University of Mississippi and the School of Journalism and New Media are partnering with the Election Cybersecurity Initiative to host the event. Mississippi is the state’s 19th stop on their cross-country tour.
“We are so pleased to be invited to work with the USC Election Cybersecurity Initiative,” said Debora Wenger, interim dean of the School of Journalism and New Media. “Journalism is embedded in the U.S. Constitution because it is fundamental to our democracy. Free, safe and accurate elections are at the heart of ensuring our country thrives. The School of Journalism & New Media will do all it can to support this mission-critical effort.”
Though voting may look different this year, Powell said he understands America prefers a traditional voting system and his Initiative is in no way advocating that should change.