Nov 5, 2018

Tech firms see rise in false claims of election interference

Ina Fried, author of Login

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Some of the leading tech companies are seeing evidence that the same bad actors looking to interfere in the U.S. elections are now looking to spread false claims of meddling, sources tell Axios.

Why it matters: With just one day left before voting ends, experts are worried about anything that undermines confidence in the election and, on that score, false claims can be just as effective as real ones.

The environment of distrust has most of America ready to believe that someone has stolen the election, and that makes it possible for meddlers to take credit for manipulation even when it hasn't happened.

The details: As evidence, sources familiar with the tech companies thinking point to a video that was posted late last month of a purported Russian troll farm whistleblower "confessing" to all manner of misdeeds.

  • The video didn't get widespread pickup from the media before being pulled down by YouTube, but did get coverage from a handful of sites, including ThinkProgress.
  • Former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos cautioned against putting too much stock in anything said by an admitted troll. "You have to be super careful with anything said by an admitted member of a 'disinformation factory,' " he said. "That includes things that would seem like admissions of guilt," he said.
  • The companies are seeing other examples, but sources declined to go into details on them.
  • Homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned last week that even if foreign governments and hackers aren't able to disrupt actual voting on Election day, they might look "to sow confusion, discord and mistrust by placing stories in social media or state sponsored media that something was wrong."

Facebook and Google officials declined to comment.

The context: Concern about false claims of interference come as the U.S. government, the big tech players and others are working overtime in an effort to thwart actual interference attempts, which continue as well. Axios' David McCabe raised the potential of this issue in a story last month: Rumor of an election hack could be as damaging as the real thing.

Be smart: Experts caution people to extra careful in the next 48 hours when they see stories about election interference. Make sure that the outlet reporting the news is credible.

Bottom line: After 2016's election interference, governments and the tech industry made it harder for would-be overseas meddlers to use the same techniques this year. But a fearful and divided American public knows that such interference could happen again. That creates a new kind of vulnerability to false claims — one that sources now say is being exploited.

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