Federal authorities, social media companies, and the U.S. military are on cybersecurity high alert for fraud, suspicious online activity or other security glitches that could cast a shadow on Tuesday’s critical mid-term elections.Fearing the use of social media and other means to interfere with the mid-terms in light of what happened during the 2016 presidential election, the Department of Homeland Security and Facebook were among those showing transparency about how they were working together to prevent this from occurring.
Tipped off by U.S. law enforcement on Sunday evening, Facebook already unveiled evidence that “foreign entities” possibly linked to Russia already started efforts to hack the election with the discovery of about 30 Facebook accounts and 85 Instagram accounts “that may be engaged in coordinated inauthentic behavior,” the company said in a blog post.
“We immediately blocked these accounts and are now investigating them in more detail,” Facebook unveiled in the post. “Almost all the Facebook Pages associated with these accounts appear to be in the French or Russian languages, while the Instagram accounts seem to have mostly been in English–some were focused on celebrities, others political debate.”
The company said that while typically it would keep quite about such investigations until finishing analysis of the situation, officials felt compelled to reveal the potential attempted interference ahead of the elections because of their importance.
“Once we know more–including whether these accounts are linked to the Russia-based Internet Research Agency or other foreign entities–we will update this post,” the company said.
United front to prevent Russian intrusion
Indeed, it seems that it’s all hands on deck this time around to prevent what happened in 2016, when Russian state-sponsored actors used misinformation campaigns on social media and other means to tip the presidential election in favor of President Donald Trump.
The urgency with which lawmakers and companies are approaching the security of the mid-term elections reflects the tense, divisive political climate in the United States. The gap between liberals and conservatives has widened in the months before the election, with a surge in hate crimes against minorities and a continued outcry over a hardline immigration stance that has separated families and put children in guarded shelters, among other issues.
In a show of solidarity to protect voters, federal agencies including the DHS, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the FBI said they were coordinating with federal, state, local and private-sector partners nationwide to ensure that the voice of every voter is heard in this election.
“Our agencies have been working in unprecedented ways to combat influence efforts and to support state and local officials in securing our elections, including efforts to harden election infrastructure against interference,” DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, DNI Dan Coats, and FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a joint statement. “Our goal is clear: ensure every vote is counted and counted correctly. At this time we have no indication of compromise of our nation’s election infrastructure that would prevent voting, change vote counts, or disrupt the ability to tally votes.”
Some officials also aim to take action at the state level to protect voters. At least three states– Washington, Illinois and Wisconsin–have activated National Guard cyber-security units, putting them on standby to assist state election officials with any cyber-related incidents during today’s voting.
Reasons to be worried
Officials aren’t chasing shadows. Aside from Facebook’s disclosure, the feds acknowledged that there is reason to worry that the Russians are up to similar tricks that they employed two years ago.
“Americans should be aware that foreign actors–and Russia in particular–continue to try to influence public sentiment and voter perceptions through actions intended to sow discord,” the joint DHS, DoJ, DNI and FBI statement warned. “They can do this by spreading false information about political processes and candidates, lying about their own interference activities, disseminating propaganda on social media, and through other tactics.”
Two reports that emerged before the election support this claim, demonstrating how Russian misinformation campaigns have consistently been targeting African Americans in a number of ways to create division between left and right political agendas, create racial division and discord, and even suppress Black voter turnout.
While it remains to be seen if these and any other election-interference campaigns will be successful Tuesday, the DHS is offering some key advice to help avoid election fraud as voters continue to go to the polls Tuesday afternoon.
The agency recommends that voters use only the election information they receive straight from the source–the state or local election office–and also do some critical thinking when consuming or sharing election-related information, considering any possible agenda of the information’s source before acting. They also should report any suspicious activity related to their own voting or witnessed at a polling site, officials advised.