As the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, individual states are ramping up education efforts to counter the threat posed by foreign disinformation campaigns to US elections.
A lack of action at the federal level has prompted many states to craft their own programs designed to counter foreign efforts to undermine American democracy and educate the next generation of voters in schools.
“It harms our democratic process when disinformation is at any point fed to voters in our democratic process,” Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told CNN. “So I do think as secretaries of state, we have a responsibility to it take to the people.”
Declassified intelligence reports on Russian meddling, by design, refuse to analyze the effectiveness of American opinion. And though most of Russia’s known propaganda efforts in the 2016 election were unsophisticated — armies of trolls with often strongly partisan opinions on polarizing subjects — they were effective enough to be widely quoted in the media and cited by a number of political figures, including Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, Donald Trump’s then-campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, and Michael Flynn, who went on to briefly serve as Trump’s national security adviser and was later charged and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russia’s ambassador.
The Department of Homeland Security found no major foreign hacking campaigns dedicated to derailing the 2018 midterm elections. But the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force, the agency dedicated to fighting disinformation tactics, alerted Facebook on the eve of that election of dozens of accounts and pages operated by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, the “troll farm” that was active on social media in 2016, which the company promptly deleted.
Since then, Facebook and Twitter have cracked down on rings of disinformation accounts promoting the interests of US adversaries including Russia, Iran, and Venezuela.
Federal efforts hampered
Federal government efforts to protect Americans from foreign propaganda have been hampered by a host of factors, including the fact that false or even bad-faith speech isn’t inherently illegal in the US and US intelligence agencies haven’t traditionally been tasked with directly countering foreign influence efforts.
“The US Intelligence Community doesn’t and shouldn’t serve as the content police for American consumers of social/news media,” a US intelligence official explained to CNN.
There currently isn’t anything resembling a federal plan to make disinformation education a part of the federal school system.
Perhaps the most active state is West Virginia, where secretary of state Mac Warner has commissioned a video from a local production company and created a short PowerPoint presentation, that focuses on Russia’s tactics, vetted by the state board of education, which he takes to high schools around the state.
“Not one vote was changed anywhere in America that’s been documented, that anyone’s aware of,” Warner told CNN. “What the Russians have been attacking has been our mind, our thought process, the spirit of America. They’re trying to put that division in there so citizens don’t trust citizens, citizens don’t trust the government, citizens don’t trust the democratic process.”
The report, drawing on federal briefings and media reports about recent foreign disinformation operations, is relatively lo-fi, said Thomas Rid, a Johns Hopkins professor who has authored a forthcoming book on information warfare.
“He’s basically saying: don’t trust the internet, check your sources. We shouldn’t need ‘Russia’ to make that point, really, but if it helps, why not?” Rid said.
But media literacy training does appear to help inoculate voters against propaganda. A study by the nonprofit International Research & Exchanges Board found that Ukrainians who took its media training were less likely to fall for Russian disinformation.
Several states following West Virginia
Several states are following West Virginia’s lead. The newly named president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, Iowa’s Paul Pate “is encouraging other states to adapt [Warner’s] presentation for their own use,” as well as developing a way to present its material in his own state, spokesperson Kevin Hall told CNN.
Chief election officials in a number of other states, including Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, and Connecticut, all told CNN they were currently figuring how to include disinformation education in their voter education programs.
“I think the biggest issue facing us is trust in the elections,” said Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s secretary of the state. “I am terribly worried that we will never see another uncontested presidential election in this country. And that is a travesty and will bring us down if we can’t figure it out.”
Two federal agencies are also looking to advise Americans about disinformation campaigns, albeit with a small reach.
The Department of Homeland Security, for its part, will soon release an infographic about how to spot bots and potential influence operations, an agency official said, illustrated by the divisive but nonpartisan issue of whether pineapple belongs on pizza.
And the FBI’s security briefing that it recently provided to presidential campaigns and representatives for the Democratic and Republican parties, which includes a section on disinformation, is available online.