As foreign and domestic actors continue to spread mis- and disinformation ahead of the upcoming midterm elections, federal agencies and nonprofit organizations are working to provide enhanced resources and support to diverse communities targeted by inaccurate and misleading content.
Federal officials and security researchers have warned for months about the dangers posed by election-related mis- and disinformation campaigns, highlighting how even simple claims of election interference can result in physical threats of violence against election administrators and erode trust in the electoral process. A report released last month by cybersecurity firm Recorded Future found that disinformation campaigns conducted by nation-state actors—including China, Russia and Iran—have “likely only intensified” since the 2020 presidential election, even as domestic actors continue to amplify unfounded claims about the accuracy of voting machines and vote tabulations.
But more federal collaboration is needed to combat this type of targeted mis- and disinformation, Joseph Bryant Jr., executive director of Rainbow PUSH Silicon Valley/Bay Area, said, adding that he believes officials are now beginning to realize “that there has to be more consistent regulation around the use of these resources.”
“There has to be a more collaborative approach to this, where things can be done ethically and legally and consistently,” he said. “That’s going to take a little more time and effort. But the federal government has to take their responsibility and assume a greater role.”
In an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly said that the upcoming midterms presented a “very complex threat environment,” but noted that there were no “specific or credible” threats to disrupt the election. She added that the agency is working, in part, to provide resources on “how to build resilience against disinformation.”
“We have a rumor versus reality site that’s basically election literacy,” Easterly said. “But most importantly, we are amplifying the voices of local and state election officials. They are the trusted voices that understand how elections work. If anybody has questions about voting or how it all works, they should go to their local election officials.”
But even as CISA has worked to enhance the public’s faith in the integrity of the electoral process by issuing joint public service announcements with the FBI to counter concerns about the threat posed by malicious cyber actors—as well as to raise awareness of foreign efforts to spread mis- and disinformation ahead of the midterm elections—inauthentic and misleading content has increasingly targeted diverse and non-English speaking communities across the United States.
Kim Wyman, CISA’s senior election security advisor, told Nextgov in a statement that “election officials recognized and raised to CISA the need to help non-English speaking communities address the risks of disinformation.”
“We know that disinformation can come in many forms and languages, which is why we have provided translations of a number of our products on the risk of mis- and disinformation,” Wyman said. “We also know that one of the most impactful ways to mitigate the spread of disinformation is to empower local election officials, who are often trusted voices in their communities, in every language. We will continue to amplify local election officials as the primary source for accurate information on how elections are conducted.”
CISA released a Tactics of Disinformation series—in both English and Spanish—on Oct. 18 “to provide state, local, tribal and territorial government officials and private sector partners insight into eight common tactics used by disinformation actors to spread false narratives, as well as proactive measures that can help mitigate the effectiveness of each tactic,” according to the agency. Over the past year, CISA has also reissued a number of its mis- and disinformation resources in Spanish, including a guide for identifying inauthentic content and an infographic for combatting disinformation, while also maintaining a multilingual resource library of tools to combat mis-, dis- and mal-information.
But even as CISA has been directing the public to rely on its own resources—as well as information provided by state and local election officials—to help combat the spread of election-related mis- and disinformation, some nonprofit organizations have stepped in to provide tools, resources and trainings for diverse communities that have been hyper-targeted by inauthentic and misleading content.
One of these is the Poynter Institute’s MediaWise digital media literacy project, which has spent the past year working with organizations representing diverse communities to combat targeted mis- and disinformation efforts.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this,” said Alex Mahadevan, the director of Poynter’s MediaWise initiative. “Depending on your background—your race, ethnicity, your locality, whatever—disinformation reaches you differently than it might reach someone else. So if disinformation reaches people in different ways, then you need to address it in different ways that take that into account.”
The MediaWise initiative, which began in 2018, initially focused on helping teenagers and college students separate fact from fiction, but expanded to focusing on media literacy training for older Americans in 2020. Mahadevan said that, earlier this year, Poynter began working to reach Spanish speakers and diverse communities targeted by mis- and disinformation.
This work entails meeting with organizations and discussing the types of targeted mis- and disinformation they’re seeing, the platforms they’re seeing it on and how it’s affecting their communities. MediaWise then creates customized workshops to present to members and executives of these groups for them to disseminate through their communities, which often focus on teaching about fact checking, conducting reverse image searches and other media literacy skills. The initiative has partnered with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the League of United Latin American Citizens and other groups to provide classes and resources for combating targeted influence campaigns.
Mahadevan said that election mis- and disinformation targeting immigrant communities, in particular, can be effective, because it builds on many of their lived experiences.
“Disinformers are really good at picking pieces of misinformation that work for specific communities,” Mahadevan said. “I think these charges of election fraud in the U.S. are completely false. But I think people who have immigrated from Latin America, for example, might have in the back of their head, ‘Oh, this has happened in my country, so I can see how this can be true.’ That’s what the trick of trying to counter it is; you have to do the same thing from a different angle.”
Given the politicized nature of combatting election-related disinformation, it can be difficult for nonprofits conducting this type of work to receive enhanced federal support and assistance. Mahadevan said “there’s a lot of funding that goes into media literacy” globally, but he’d still like to see more collaboration with the federal government to conduct this work.
“We do want to partner with government organizations on this, but we just haven’t just seen as much of an opportunity,” Mahadevan said. “I think in terms of directing resources towards actually debunking things or creating a disinformation task force, I think that always gets a little tricky because it sounds so antagonistic.”
Earlier this year, the Biden administration had to walk back the creation of a Disinformation Governance Board within the Department of Homeland Security after receiving extensive pushback from conservatives. And a recent investigation from ProPublica published on Nov. 1 found that DHS subsequently pulled back from its broader efforts to counter election disinformation after it terminated the board.
For diverse organizations on the ground, however, these types of nonprofit-led trainings are helping to fill a void left by more intensive federal engagement.
Bryant said “it’s important now to really lean in on voter education.” He said that MediaWise’s trainings, in particular, have shown how nefarious actors “can quickly utilize trickery and other unfair practices to get wrong information out,” and have helped voters—particularly those from diverse communities—“discern and make decisions with the right kind of information.”
According to Bryant, the federal government’s role should include addressing the spread of mis- and disinformation on social media platforms frequented by younger users, since many Gen Z and Millennial Americans “live in the spaces where people have decided to go and manipulate information.”
“That needs to be addressed very directly and very intentionally,” he added.
While the current focus on countering influence operations has largely centered on the proliferation of harmful election-related content, mis- and disinformation campaigns over the past few years have spread unfounded rumors about the FBI, the IRS and the origins of COVID-19. More recently, Russian actors have also used Spanish-speaking social media networks to spread disinformation about the war in Ukraine.
Mahadevan said that some of his colleagues with PolitiFact, which is operated by the Poynter Institute, have begun fact-checking Russian disinformation shared in Spanish to help combat these efforts.