One of the more chilling tracks from this year’s SXSW were the sessions about misinformation, specifically political misinformation that derailed our elections. During the first day, I attended a session titled Fact v. Fiction: Fighting Election Disinformation a panel featuring, among others, Chris Krebs, noted cybersecurity expert, and Jena Griswold, former Secretary of State for Colorado.

Krebs shared his fear that our media ecosystem, while open to any and all to participate, is easily exploited by well-funded state actors. While the internet and open-source publishing platforms such as WordPress have leveled the playing field, opening access to anyone, it has also put the burden of fact-checking and verifying sources on to the reading public.

too many people are making “insane amounts of money” from disinformation campaigns

Chris Krebs @ SXSW 2022

On Facebook and Twitter all posts tend to look the same. Reduced to a headline, thumbnail image, and snippet, a sponsored post or advertorial written by a paid shill looks no different from a site with more stringent journalistic standards. Production values are no longer an arbiter of quality. Super-charged distribution is built into the business model of these platforms so, with a little bit of budget, a false narrative can be boosted and drown out competing narratives.

The infiltration of “fake news” sites in our media ecosystem is well-documented. What used to be a fenced-off network of identifiable Press Releases has been replaced by networks of “pay-to-play” sites that where lightly re-writing paid messages are turned into into thinly-veiled news stories interlinked to increase their SEO designed to flood the zone.

To illustrate my point in an aside, I uncovered one coordinated campaign designed to promote an online learning program to the Alameda School District. I used to live in Alameda and am familiar with its geography. Imagine my surprise when I saw the identical story across three publications that I had never heard of before. East Alameda is not even a neighborhood – everyone who has lived in Alameda knows it’s called the East End. That was the tell.

Clearly what happened is that the vendor of the online learning system was trying to swing public opinion to win a contract. Thankfully, they were thwarted but this shows you how easy it is to plant a message.

Even more chilling was Krebs’ statement that the 2020 Presidential Election was just a dry run or, as he says, an a/b test. Americans were sophisticated enough to suss out foreign disinformation but with movements such as Stop the Steal, QAnon, and the January 6th insurrection, we are still uncovering the depth and extent of deception. Domestic misinformation worked very well to power the Big Lie movement and we are sure to see more domestic misinformation in future elections.

I look at the last election as an a/b test. A – foreign, B – domestic. We learned that A doesn’t really resonate, B was effective so we’ll see more of that.

Chris Krebs at SXSW 2022

Jena Griswold, Secretary of State in Colorado, shared a chilling episode that took place as she oversaw the counting of ballots in the last election. Griswold discovered one of her election workers turned off cameras monitoring the ballot machines and invited an unauthorized person linked to the QAnon movement into the room, sharing motherboard passwords giving privileged access to the ballot computers and opening the ports to the internet, exposing the votes to tampering.

This person, Colorado county clerk Tina Peters, is now running against Griswold for Secretary of State despite having 10 indictments for election tampering filed against her. The Secretary of State is responsible for election integrity and most people do not bother to look into the background of individuals running for this position, in fact, many run unopposed. This firewall around free and fair elections could likely be undermined by a coordinated campaign to put “Big Lie” sympathizers into office that could throw the next presidential election.

Terrified yet? Here’s what you need to do according to the panel.

  1. support non-partisan organizations that are working to get people to the polls
  2. get familiar with the people running to protect elections in your county
  3. talk to your “crazy uncle” or neighbor – try to get thru to them, empathize, sample what they are reading and look for common issues or facts upon which you can both agree

Sleep well.