SQUINT Sharpens Officials' Perspective to Combat Election Distortion

February 2020
Topics: Election Integrity, Cybersecurity, Information Security
State and local election officials need tools to combat deception and misinformation on social media. A new app gives officials a way to capture misinformation when it happens.
Woman using a digital tablet

Disinformation on social media can negatively impact our elections. A free, MITRE-developed application helps officials counter election-related misinformation that could keep registered voters from the polls. "Social See Something, Say Something," or SQUINT™, offers a fast, reliable way for election officials to report and correct bad information that appears on social media.

SQUINT has short- and long-term benefits. It immediately generates a report that can be shared with peers or used to strengthen a take-down request to social media channels. Over time, those SQUINT reports also feed a database that helps researchers recognize patterns. Understanding trends and patterns helps election officials communicate proactively with both voters and social media channels.

The tool addresses a serious and growing problem impacting elections worldwide. Voters need facts: how to register, what's on the ballot, and when and where to vote. Social media can be an unreliable source. Platforms circulate and amplify disinformation and distortion from legitimate-sounding sources so quickly that fiction appears as truth. Those posts get liked and shared, and the lies spread.

Instances of this happening in the United States have been well documented by the Department of Homeland Security and Intelligence agencies.

In 2016, bad actors from Russia and other nation states created fake social media accounts through which they spread misinformation and distortion. The New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights reported that in several cases, they posed as grass roots U.S. activists and used social media to mobilize American users to participate in rallies on both sides of critical issues.

A 2019 study by the Knight Foundation noted distorted messages in 6.6 million tweets linking to fake news and conspiracy news publishers appeared among Twitter’s 330 million subscribers the month before the 2016 election. 80 percent of those accounts are still active today, the study says.

Confronting that tsunami of distortion is a challenge for the most powerful officials. SQUINT gives power to officials at the state and local levels, where the real work is done.

“Those are the people held to account if something goes wrong,” says Emily Frye, director of Cyber Integration, who leads MITRE’s Election Integrity Initiative.  “As a state or local official, I’m sitting blind in an ocean of influence. I don’t know what’s affecting my local electorate, and when I find out, I have no way to counter it.”

SQUINT enables them to counter it with the click of a button.

“Experts on electoral infrastructure, procedures, and policies at the state and local levels are notoriously busy and their offices are understaffed," says Marc Schneider, MITRE cybersecurity engineer. "Anything we ask them to do must be super simple.”

A Head Start on Getting the Truth to Voters

SQUINT wasn’t designed to flag misinformation in campaign messaging. It exists to correct distortions about the elections process and infrastructure. Here’s a real-world example of where SQUINT would engage:

During one state’s elections in 2019, a social media channel posted: “You’ll need a Real ID to vote this year.”  

“Suppose this wasn’t one individual with one message on one platform,” Schneider says. “What if it was 27 messages across several different platforms and people picked up and ran with it, when, in that particular state, it was incorrect?”

The state election bureau had to work quickly to set the record straight.

SQUINT would have given them a head start. In a future scenario, when misinformation appears, an election official who sees it could click the SQUINT icon on their smart phone, tablet, or desktop. SQUINT collects a screen shot and metadata associated with the false posting. The app then sends that information to a MITRE-hosted server where it’s aggregated and scored, and additional analysis takes place.

In return, the sender receives acknowledgement of the submission and a report that they can share with peers. The sender can also submit the report to the social media channel where the falsehood appeared with a request that the platform take it down.

Schneider says it’s up to local and state officials to determine the best channel for correcting the misinformation—whether notifying the media or posting corrections on social media. That may differ from one situation to the next.  

SQUINT is one component of MITRE’s Election Integrity Initiative, which includes the National Election Security Laboratory, where election officials can analyze the complex network of software, hardware, and processes to improve election security and integrity.  

MITRE experts also recently published recommendations for securing voter registration databases. Security measures included limiting access, improving system defenses, and planning for the worst—a breach or a crash. 

Election integrity lies at the core of the democratic process—one person, one vote. With SQUINT, MITRE is giving state and local officials a means to maintain public trust and confidence in their election systems.

For more information, email SQUINT@mitre.org and watch the video.

—by Molly Manchenton

Explore more at MITRE Focal Point: Election Integrity.

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