MITRE Responds to the Election Misinformation Threat

January 2021
Topics: Election Integrity, Cybersecurity, Information Security, Policy
Following the unprecedented role of disinformation in the 2016 presidential election, MITRE moved quickly to help government officials address this threat. What worked well? And what other challenges in this area do we face? MITRE experts weigh in.
Voters waiting in line outside

The U.S. Intelligence Community concluded that Russia and other adversaries weaponized social media to influence our national elections in 2016. To prepare for a possible repeat during the 2020 presidential election, MITRE responded with several efforts.

One initiative, SQUINT, is a free app that helped election officials spot social media posts featuring incorrect and misleading information about elections that could discourage registered voters from taking part in a key element of our democracy.

Now that the election has ended, we’re asking: What worked well? What was more challenging? And what comes next? MITRE experts who oversaw these efforts weigh in.

Q: What kind of impact did MITRE have on misinformation surrounding the 2020 election?

Marc Schneider, co-lead for election integrity: We were able to identify and report various types of misinformation and disinformation to election officials and voting equipment vendors via SQUINT. We received positive feedback from secretaries of state, deputy secretaries of state, chief election officials, and from voting system vendors. They said these reports were helpful towards addressing misinformation and reassuring voters of the integrity of the process.

Here's one example that SQUINT helped officials to address quickly: We spotted tweets claiming that state officials in Ohio, Florida, Illinois, and Kentucky used the pretext of the COVID-19 threat to close more than 1,000 polling locations to keep people from voting.

These officials take the perception of voter suppression very seriously. As is often the case with misinformation, some aspects of the tweets were correct—many polling locations were indeed closed due to health risk. But those posts didn’t mention that the election officials had taken other steps to ensure that people could safely vote, including increasing capacity at remaining locations and opening others.

Q: What was most challenging?

Emily Frye, co-lead for election integrity: Coordination. There’s been a lot of progress in addressing election integrity and misinformation over the past four years. Federal and state government agencies worked smoothly with the Elections Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center. There was also a vibrant landscape of volunteer organizations that stepped up to address the misinformation challenge, but the U.S. could better harness their efforts with more coordination.

We also need a more coordinated approach to working with social media platforms to remove misinformation or counter it with the truth in a way that honors the first amendment. Each social media platform had its own approach, and we appreciated their efforts to address misinformation when contacted.

But it would be even better to have a systematic approach that brought together the major platforms. There isn’t a model for this with misinformation, but we can learn from organizations like the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and others that address the issues through self-regulation.

Q: What else would help with future elections?

Frye: There’s a real lack of understanding on how voting technology works—and how it doesn’t. We need to make it really clear who the election integrity experts are to separate them from purported “experts” who spread disinformation and misinformation that’s then amplified by the news and social media. We’re seeing people in the latter category talking about voting machines flipping votes from one candidate to another—but these machines can’t do that.

We need to find a way that separates those people from the real experts who highlight actual vulnerable elements in our election system, like voter registration databases. This can help the news media report accurate information. It can also help government officials and social media platforms as they seek to fact check claims and take appropriate action.

Q: What other areas are vulnerable to misinformation?

Jennifer Mathieu, lead for MITRE Social Integrity™ efforts: Contact tracing, therapeutics, and vaccines that are part of the national response to COVID-19 have all been targets for disinformation and misinformation. SQUINT’s approach could point the way to crowdsourcing of reports from experts on these topics.

Over the past three years, we also used the election cycle to demonstrate a complementary approach using big data analytics to examine online and social media posts by topic, supported by an AI platform to make sense of this information.

This can be particularly helpful in detecting disinformation and misinformation at scale and in near-real time where there is a lot of manipulation, as has been the case on the vaccine topic. It’s also helpful where disinformation and misinformation is more of a needle in a haystack, as has been the case with contact tracing and convalescent plasma.

interviews conducted by Jeremy Singer on December 9 and 10, 2020

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