Disinformation campaigns are not an abstract worry for North Carolina voters.
Last week, the Winston-Salem Journal reported on a fake news page posing as local journalism.
The administrators of the site, which was spreading racially divisive messages and voicing support for President Donald Trump’s campaign for reelection, published at least one post in Russian and responded in Russian to some inquiries from the Winston-Salem Police Department, according to the news reports.
The Police Department had been the subject of several plagiarized and falsified stories.
The Facebook page has not been directly tied to Russian intelligence efforts or definitively confirmed to be Russian. Such confirmation would pose a difficult task, requiring American intelligence efforts. But the page followed widely reported Russian strategies to introduce disinformation and divisiveness into American politics ahead of this year’s elections.
In the lead-up to the 2016 elections, Russian disinformation operatives also created fake news pages on social media, according to Rachael Wilson, the head of external affairs at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
“Hats off to the Winston-Salem Police Department, who then reported this,” Wilson said.
Everyone can combat foreign meddling
In the lead-up to next week’s primary elections, even everyday people can help minimize the effectiveness of foreign meddling in the election, Wilson said.
They can monitor their own social media and report pages that are sharing inaccurate information. If there’s any question whether what is shared online is true, the best thing to do is to go to the source, such as local election officials, for accurate information. Carolina Public Press recently posted answers to many questions about North Carolina’s 2020 elections that may be helpful.
Wilson also recommends getting news directly from a trusted news outlet rather than relying solely on what other people share.
“And participate, and vote,” Wilson said. “Our democracy isn’t strong unless we make it, and that requires active participation by everyone.”
Election interference on the big stage
The local news of possible election interference through bogus news reports was mirrored days later by reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post that intelligence officials briefed the House Intelligence Committee on Russian interference in the election favoring Trump’s reelection.
CNN’s reporting, also based largely on unnamed sources, then added nuance to those conclusions, stating that Russia’s interference is separate from Russia’s assessment that it can work with Trump as a leader.
This closely follows conclusions made in the Mueller report, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, in which “the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, (but) the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in the election interference activities.”
A few days later, national outlets reported that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was also being supported by Russian disinformation efforts, which Sanders denounced.
How can voters make sense of all this information, which is often presented in opposing narratives depending on the news outlet and unnamed official source, ahead of Tuesday’s election?
Ignore disinformation to choose your candidate
Voters need to understand the difference between the integrity of the vote and the information environment surrounding elections.
According to political scientist and UNC Charlotte professor Martha Kropf, this line is sometimes blurred when talking about “election security.”
Kropf stressed that there are very capable people looking after the integrity of the vote; that is, state and federal agencies have worked since 2016 to improve security around elections and make sure that voters’ ballots are counted as cast.
On the other hand, dealing with the scourge of disinformation in our day-to-day lives, especially on social media, requires voters’ individual responsibility, especially since no state or federal legislation has been passed to address misinformation online, and social media companies have not solved the problems on their own.
“What you do with the information that you are embedded in is up to you,” Kropf said.
“You have to, you know, you have to make sure you are a smart consumer of information.”
This is much the same as it’s always been, Kropf said, where voters need to be responsible about educating themselves about elections and candidates. The weaponization of disinformation on social media only makes this more difficult.
Disinformation efforts not always about elections
The disinformation fed to Americans does not have to be about elections.
Instead, as demonstrated by the fake news page “North Carolina Breaking News” that Facebook removed, fake stories about issues such as race or policing can inflame tensions around political discourse as a whole, according to David Salvo, Wilson’s colleague and deputy director at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
In the lead-up to 2016, Russia used microtargeted ads on Facebook and other social media sites to target locations of political significance.
For example, Facebook’s lawyer told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in November 2017 that “approximately 126 million people may have been served content from a page associated with the (Russian internet agency) at some point during the two-year period” before the 2016 election.
Each of the experts interviewed for this story stressed that participating in vitriolic debates online or sharing fake stories only helps advance the cause of foreign nation-states trying to sow distrust in the American electorate. Gregory Miller, co-founder and chief operating officer at the Open Source Election Technology Institute, said the best option to avoid misinformation online is to take a break from the 24-hour news cycle and social media.
“I mean, at some point, I want to say, shut off your TV, turn off your Facebook,” Miller said.
“Go outside, get some fresh air, leave it alone for a bit, drop it. I mean, the thing is that you can only tell people so much that they have to question everything that they’re reading, that they should be cautious to trust anything at this point.”
As to reports of whom Russia is “supporting,” Miller advised that voters ignore that information when going to the polls. Doing otherwise would “grant power where it is unjustified,” Miller said.
Voters should also look at the bigger picture, she said.
“The question that they should ask is not which candidate is Russia trying to help,” Wilson said, “but why is Russia trying to interfere in the first place? And that overarching goal is dividing Americans, amplifying that division and undermining faith in our democracy.”
A consensus exists between election experts and election officials at the state and federal levels as to how individual citizens can best protect their democracy from foreign interference and bad actors: Go vote.
“Keep your head down,” Miller said. “Make sure you register to vote. Follow your heart. But just realize your heart may be hijacked.”
That is, if voters are not careful to vet the accuracy of what they read and share on social media.
Editor’s note: If you see instances of likely disinformation online, please contact Carolina Public Press elections reporter Jordan Wilkie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Rachael Wilson, the head of external affairs at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. The story also quoted Gregory Miller without identifying him properly. Both of these issues have been corrected.