Last week, 12 days before the presidential election, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency alerted the public that Russia had targeted dozens of government and aviation networks, including some housing voter information, and had successfully stolen data from at least two servers.
This breach should certainly raise alarm bells, but it comes as no surprise to the disinformation community. Both the Mueller report and federal indictments detail how Russia has been systematically targeting voter information for years, including in 2016 when it attacked voter equipment manufacturers and hacked into county-level government computer systems in Florida and Illinois.
While political parties argue over whether or not Russian interference occurred in 2016, Russian influence operations have proceeded unchecked: Russia has used botnets to propagate false information, launched coordinated disinformation operations, and developed a network of fake journalists for hire to write articles critical of former Vice President Joe Biden.
And those are just the things we know about publicly.
Russia is a relentless adversary
By sowing seeds of doubt in the American populace, nation-state actors like Russia further magnify political divides, targeting our nation’s vulnerabilities and undermining our national security.
While there is still much more that needs to be done to stop foreign interference in our elections, the United States has taken some steps to prevent a repeat of 2016. During the 2018 midterm elections, U.S. Cyber Command ran a campaign to try to keep Russian trolls off the internet. Within the last month, America has taken action against the Russian intelligence agency, the GRU, and worked to take down Russian-operated social media accounts. However, like the CISA alert, these efforts are mere drops in the bucket against a relentless adversary taking advantage of effective tactics that cost little to employ and result in little or no consequences.
Federal agencies maintain that votes were never changed in previous hacking attempts, but just the perception that Russia has interfered will go a long way in advancing the narrative that we cannot trust election results. This narrative is a favorite of the Russian state-run media, which have enthusiastically amplified the false claims by President Donald Trump asserting that the election is “rigged” against him.
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Foreign or domestic, any infringement upon Americans’ right to vote poses a risk to us all: Our democracy depends on the ability of voters to access the truth. Right now, false narratives, conspiracies and misinformation online are rampant at a scale we have never seen before.
Protect yourself from fake news
I recently testified before the House Intelligence Committee, where I stated that I have seen an across-the-board failure to combat foreign interference in our elections. As a result, and no doubt inspired by Russian efforts, more countries than ever are targeting our infrastructure vulnerabilities to advance both their domestic and foreign policy goals.
This includes China and Iran. These foreign actors are actively targeting political divisions in this country to manipulate and influence U.S. citizens and to degrade America’s standing on the world stage while discrediting our institutions.
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The same social media algorithms that delivered false information to those most likely to believe it in 2016 are working against voters today. We must be vigilant to protect ourselves from domestic and international efforts to undermine our democracy with disinformation. No one is coming to save us.
Over the next few weeks, we will no doubt see more nefarious attempts to influence voters and sow distrust in election results, but the best thing that we can do as Americans is vote. Voters must understand that they will be targeted by disinformation, take the necessary steps to verify information, and read skeptically so that they do not fall for and spread disinformation.
Cindy L. Otis, a disinformation expert and former CIA analyst, is vice president of analysis at Alethea Group, a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of “True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News.” Follow her on Twitter at @CindyOtis_
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Don't let Russia misinformation sway your 2020 vote or shake your trust