Recently, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent published an article in which he states that misinformation and not tampering with election systems remains the primary threat against U.S. elections. This concern is magnified when Artificial Intelligence (AI) is added into the equation, when generative AI programs could be leveraged to mass produce misinformation or “other digital campaigns” during election season. After all, generative AI has been capitalized already by cyber threat actors to aid in their criminal campaigns by using the technology to perfect social engineering content used in phishing campaigns, or else to create malware that can alter its behavior in response to security measures to enhance the effectiveness of their attacks. For the former FBI agent, the threat is clear: foreign entities capitalizing on misinformation could interfere in elections by stoking the misinformation fire targeted at electors to sow discord and discontent.
There is something to be said about the difficulty in relying on hacking to interfere in the U.S. election process. According to a U.S. Intelligence Community report, Russian intelligence hackers did not breach voting machines or computers that tallied election results, even though they were involved in other hacking activities. However, it should be noted whether this was due to the difficulty in doing so, or the intent on the hackers not to change votes remains unclear. Nevertheless, as one think tank report on election security pointed out, the most significant concern cited in the report was states not having enough resources to secure the election process, especially in smaller counties. This provides some confidence that it would be extremely difficult to alter an election solely from hacking, although such activities could still have an impact on isolated incidents where an environment is favorable to being compromised via cyber means (e.g., having the right infrastructure in place) if successful. This is reassuring given a recent report citing that only 4% are fully prepared to address cyber attacks come election time.
Still, this does not even take into account a successful hack does not have to be done, merely the appearance that one had occurred. The 2016 Mueller report revealed that it may not be necessary to corrupt or manipulate the systems or data; the intimation that something has occurred may be enough to achieve the attacker’s objective to cast doubt on voters’ minds.
The FBI agent in the article states that “if foreign entities can use misinformation to discourage voters from going to the polls, then they can make people doubt the election itself.” The emphasis quickly focuses on foreign entities who presumably have a vested interest in promoting a particular candidate, or in general, sowing discord and distrust among the electorate. However, what is not presented is the fact that many of the more contentious issues that have sowed discord have been intrinsically divisive, cleaving society into opposing sides entrenched in their opinions and beliefs. Misinformation in these cases may stoke the flames of division, but the fire had already been set. Perhaps more disconcerting is the increasing amount of literature showing that mainstream news outlets – not trolls or trolls posing as legitimate news – have done more than their share of wittingly or unwittingly promulgating misinformation through their own outlets and channels.
There have been several studies supporting this contention with one European study showing how established news brands spread disinformation highlighting the role of liberal and conservative mainstream media in electoral disinformation during the U.S. elections. Social media has only exacerbated the volume and frequency allowing ardent supporters of any side of a contentious issue to spread the content and point to a mainstream news source brand as justifying the reliability of the information. One researcher and her team found published a study that concluded mainstream media was perhaps the most significant purveyors of misinformation and was likely to impact voters’ decisions during elections than any other source where people received their news and information. This is a sobering reality that needs more exposure if things are to get better. While pushing specific narratives is expected from hyper-partisan news outlets, it may not be readily acknowledged that other mainstream news sources are doing the same thing.
However, despite where the political leaning of acolytes falls, the fundamental fact remains that public trust in media is at an all time low. A 2023 Gallup poll found that only 32% of American surveyed found that they substantially trusted the mass media to report fairly and accurately, matching the historical low since Gallup tracked these results. The overwhelming majority did not, a sentiment that tracked across all age groups. These findings are corroborated by another study that found that those who did not trust the news media did so due to bias, spin, and political agendas, and a perception that powerful figures influenced the media to push their interests. This finding is curious given the willingness of individuals to support the integrity of their preferred news channel or sources, suggesting that disinformation exposure only mattered to voters only when it comes from the other side. If voters are this set in their beliefs, while outside foreign pressure can add logs to the perpetuate the fire, one thing is abundantly clear: this fire is far from going out in the first place.
The same can be said for Government where people have low trust in the government, especially depending on where a voter falls politically. Pew Research found that just 4% of U.S. adults believed the political system was working well, and only 16% trusting the government always or most of the time. What’s interesting is that trust in the government largely depends on whether the individual’s party is in power. A 2022 study from Security.org found 93% of Democrats had some level of trust in the Democratic Administration-led government, while only 20% of Republicans surveyed felt the same. Regardless, there is a belief that large numbers of Americans believe that the U.S. government politicians and officials spread misinformation more than foreign governments. Some examples include: Anthony Fauci’s recent admission that six foot distancing standards had no basis in science after promoting this position throughout the pandemic, as well as his acknowledgement that the lab leak was not a conspiracy as was projected by some in the government, which had consistently knocked down as conspiracy conjecture. Even the narrative that the content on Hunter Biden’s laptop was a product of Russian disinformation, which was backed by 50 former U.S. intelligence officials, was disproved when the FBI verified its contents as legitimate. The consequences of this type of misinformation are immediately felt by the public in times of crisis when the public needs reliable information from trusted sources.
As another presidential election looms, talk of misinformation has been bubbling, a narrative that is fast becoming expected coming from officials. And if news outlets are not going to be more rigorous in combatting misinformation in their own ranks, it is incumbent on the public to take it upon themselves to be more skeptical about news sources and to substantiate any information that may influence their election choices. A positive development is that it appears that they may be already acknowledging this role. A 2022 study suggests that trust in social media as a news source has declined, which is a step in the right direction. Now, it must do the same with any source sharing information. After all, misinformation is not something that started in 2016.
A study by academic researchers found that the majority of people polled found that fake news and misinformation has always been present in society, and while this is just one perspective, it does suggest that it was never seen as a problem before the alarms raised during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. This is not shocking given that propaganda has been used to persuade via “argument, rumor, misunderstanding, and falsehood” since at least ancient Greece. So, to think the public needs the government (whom it already has trust issues with) to be the arbiters of what it believes is misinformation is not only unnecessary, but an undertaking that may only exacerbate the problem. This is especially true if fake news consumption makes up a negligible fraction of Americans’ daily information diet, as one study found in its 2020 research.
There is no fix to misinformation promulgation short of complete information control and censorship of content and those producing and sharing it. And these are detrimental to any free and democratic society. If the government is supposed to be of the people, by the people, for the people, then the people must assume responsibility and accountability for the material that it creates, produces, and disseminates. Any thing short of people becoming the arbiters of their own information environments will continue to perpetuate the misinformation ecosystem.
By mitigating the impact of misinformation, that is, making its impact negligible, it becomes white noise in the background. And that may be the only way to minimize its effects on society.