Earlier today, I started seeing social media posts about voter data from multiple states being located on a so-called “dark web” website. The general picture being painted was that this data had been obtained through improper means and made available for sale. From there, the “story” picked up steam, and Russian and American news outlets did some reporting on it. The state of Michigan ultimately issued a press release to address the “story.”
The problem? ABSOLUTELY NONE OF IT IS TRUE!
The state of Michigan’s voter registration data was not “hacked.” The data posted was publicly available information. The state verified this in its press release. A voting security researcher downloaded the data and confirmed it contained nothing more than publicly available data that anyone can access. The same user who posted the Michigan voter data also posted voter data from other states as well. While I have not looked at the data from other states, it is a safe bet that this data is also nothing more than what is publicly available to everyone.
Why am I writing about this? Two reasons:
- Many people shared this non-event via social media, including some high-profile reporters. The description left many people thinking that some type of “hack” had taken place, and created a great deal of “Sturm und Drang” earlier today that was completely unnecessary.
- This type of hype only serves to inflame the public discussion about elections in general and takes attention away from legitimate issues related to voting and security.
It’s no secret that our elections process has been under attack, most likely by multiple nation-states. Yes, I said multiple. These attacks are real, and they have the potential to do damage to our country. They are being addressed by serious people in both government and academia, regardless of what you may have heard from your favorite Q-Anon watering hole of nonsense.
There is a difference between “misinformation” and “disinformation.” Nation-states engage in disinformation campaigns as a way to erode public trust in the elections process. They do not need to “hack” a single system anywhere or otherwise change a single vote. All they need to do is sow the seeds of mistrust, water them with care, and watch them grow into weeds that choke the garden known as the United States of America.
I believe today’s non-story can generously be described as misinformation, but I can also see an argument being made that it was disinformation. Not the type of disinformation that nation-states engage in, but rather a cynical attempt to draw clicks and generate revenue.
So, what are average folks to do when faced with these types of situations? A few tips:
- Learn to read everything with a critical eye. Do not believe everything you read.
- Ask yourself if this generally aligns with what you believe to be true. Does this sound reasonable?
- Verify stories yourself. Even if it comes from someone you know to be otherwise reputable and level-headed, that person may have been duped into sharing something that is not true.
- Examine the account sharing the details for warning signs. Is the account new? Does it only “push” news items without engaging in conversation with others about it? Is it an older account that seems to have suddenly “sprung to life” after long periods of inactivity?
Learning to discern between legitimate news and disinformation (or just misinformation) is not something that people naturally think about. We want to trust others. We want to believe that people are engaging in good faith and ascribe positive intent to their actions. And, for the VAST majority of instances, this is actually what is happening.
Social media is a wonderful tool. It allows us to stay connected with friends, family, and colleagues. It also allows us to meet new people and build new relationships. Unfortunately, social media also offers a way for malicious actors to engage in incredibly disruptive activities. You cannot have the good without the bad.
It is up to us – ALL OF US – to recognize the benefits and risks associated with social media use, and to not merely trust or believe everything we see or read just because it conforms to your worldview or seems to come from a “legitimate” or “trustworthy” source. Please do your homework, ask the tough questions, and reach your own conclusions regarding its veracity.