Officials fear coronavirus could be next front in election interference
Joseph Marks • Mar 02, 2020
U.S. officials fear adversaries might weaponize public fears about coronavirus ahead of Super Tuesday to spread disinformation, amplify rumors and tamp down voter turnout.
The concern comes as people test positive for the virus in numerous states, including California, Texas and Alabama – which are among the 14 states that will hold their Democratic primaries Tuesday.
The virus, which has killed nearly 3,000 people worldwide, could offer a near-perfect test case for how operatives from Russia or elsewhere seeking to undermine confidence in the election could boost public fears to stop people from heading to the polls – maybe enough to swing a tight race or at least raise doubts in the results.
It's “one of a number of scenarios” of potential interference federal officials are monitoring, the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity division chief Chris Krebs told Kevin Collier at NBC News. Krebs’s office declined to comment this weekend when I asked for more information about the possible response.
“This is a new and obviously very scary virus, and misinformation can leverage off of that,” Peter Singer, a fellow at the New America think tank who has written extensively about information warfare, told me. “I would almost be surprised if we don’t see it.”
There are signs that adversaries may be trying to ramp up public anxiety, as my colleague Tony Romm reports. The propaganda-fighting wing of the State Department identified 2 million tweets peddling coronavirus conspiracy theories, including claims that it was created by the Pentagon or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Some of those tweets exhibited “evidence of inauthentic and coordinated activity,” per the report, though it didn’t say any government was behind the disinformation campaign, Tony reports.
The coronavirus is especially ripe for disinformation attacks because it’s already being treated as a partisan issue. President Trump claimed at rallies that Democrats are “politicizing” the virus and called it the left's ”new hoax." And Democrats have savaged the president for using the virus as a political football. Former vice president Joe Biden shot back that the virus is "not a Democratic hoax…this is incompetence on the part of the president of the United States at the expense of the country and the world."
This political bickering over public health could sow public distrust in government and expert statements about the virus, leading many to believe it’s either not as bad or far worse than it really is, Singer said.
“Disinformation and conspiracy theories thrive like communicable diseases,” he said. “They thrive in an environment where people don’t know basic facts or how to defend themselves.”
The fact that many Super Tuesday contests are potentially close races between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would make it easier for adversaries to sow doubt about a victory with minimal effort, Yonatan Striem-Amit, co-founder and chief technology officer of the cybersecurity company Cybereason, which has worked extensively on election security, told me.
“Imagine how easy it is to spread a rumor saying traces of coronavirus were found in a random sweep at a particular polling station,” he said. “Put yourself in the shoes of any voter out there and ask, ‘would that make me stay at home?’”
An attacker could even micro-target the rumors, for example, by sending phony text messages warning about the virus to people in a particular city or neighborhood that favors one candidate, Striem-Amit and his colleague Roi Carmel, Cybereason’s chief strategy, product and marketing officer, told me.
“There should be an assumption that people will try to exploit this,” Striem-Amit said. “There should be instructions on what happens when there's a rumor, what are the official communication channels, how do you convince people, no matter what, to go out to vote.”
Coronavirus fears are not just affecting U.S. elections. In Israel, which holds its general election today, the Central Elections Committee has set up an information center to “help refute baseless rumors” about the virus and is warning voters to be wary, Aaron Rabinowitz at Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports. “We ask the public to be very alert and we understand that there may be an attempt to spread fake news about the coronavirus,” the election committee’s director, Orly Ades, told a news conference.
A Russian campaign playing on coronavirus fears targeting the U.S. would also mark a major test for social media companies, which have struggled to rein in disinformation on their platforms. Facebook, for example, has committed to removing any posts that spread misinformation about polling times and locations and to remove coronavirus conspiracy theories – but only if they’ve been debunked by health authorities.
“Such steps have won tech giants plaudits from critics who long have clamored for the industry to take a more active role in policing a wide array of harmful content on the Internet,” Tony reports. “But it has not curtailed the flood of coronavirus myths and conspiracy theories entirely: Private Facebook groups, and hard-to-find but still popular YouTube videos, continue to push inaccuracies about the malady and its origins.”
You can read the full article by Joseph Marks here.
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