California election officials are launching a new effort to fight the kind of disinformation campaigns that plagued the 2016 elections — an effort that comes with thorny legal and political questions. The state’s new Office of Elections Cybersecurity will focus on combating social media campaigns that try to confuse voters or discourage them from casting ballots. During the 2016 election, in addition to hacking email accounts and attacking voting systems, Russian agents used social media to plant disinformation intended to drive down voter turnout.
“People deserve to have confidence in our elections systems, and countering wrong information has become an important part of that,” says Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a Democrat who hopes to get the effort started before the November election.
One widely circulated post in 2016 was an image of actor Aziz Ansari holding a Photoshopped sign urging Hillary Clinton supporters to save time by tweeting their votes from home. Another was an official-looking Clinton campaign graphic that urges supporters to “Vote from home” and to “Text ‘Hillary’ to 59925 and we’ll make history together.” It even included a “Paid for by Hillary for President 2016” disclaimer at the bottom.