With less than three months to the midterm elections, American voters remain vulnerable to the same type of information warfare that Russia used to interfere with the 2016 presidential race. Election officials say voting systems are better protected against hackers than they were two years ago, but intelligence experts say the federal government hasn’t tackled the threat of foreign-created disinformation on social media. The risk endures after Russian nationals used hundreds of fake social media accounts to stoke political discord in the U.S. in 2016, according to an indictment earlier this year by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. “The spreading of misinformation and disinformation is one of the single greatest threats to our democratic process,” says National Association of Secretaries of State President Jim Condos, a Democrat who is also Vermont’s Secretary of State. “As we saw in 2016, our foreign adversaries used these tactics to sow doubt with voters and weaken voter confidence in the integrity of our elections.” Now the nation’s most populous state is pushing back, launching an unprecedented effort to address the issue.
Earlier this month, the California legislature approved the creation of an Office of Elections Cybersecurity to be overseen by Democratic Secretary of State Alex Padilla. He expects Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to support the new office, which Padilla says would be “the first of its kind in the nation, as far as we understand.”
In addition to addressing cyber threats to California’s voting systems, the office would proactively root out false information online about the state’s electoral process, including where and how to vote. Staffers would monitor social media platforms like California-based Facebook and Twitter, then coordinate with local election authorities — or directly with those companies — to remove the falsehoods. The office would also work with the press and through its own social media channels to provide the public with accurate information.