Underpinning democracy is an essential trust in voting and elections. Hacking and disinformation have, separately, dominated conversations about election vulnerabilities, but disinformation about hacks presents a threat as well.
All it takes is to raise questions about the integrity of the elections and convince people that the results cannot be trusted. That could actually be pretty easy to do. It’s also much cheaper than an all-out effort, even where it would be possible, to change votes or otherwise manipulate results.
So, how might a fake vote hack play out? A hacker might probe a voter system and change nothing, but still leave enough of a trace to make the breach known. That, paired even with a basic disinformation campaign alleging that the hack had changed the results, would likely sow chaos — especially in a contentious and close race.
The key to understanding such attacks is the motive. If the aim is to fuel public outcry against the democratic system, and to cause people to question its legitimacy on a mass scale — the known intentions of actors in Russia, Iran, and elsewhere — then it all makes sense. This is what those bizarre ads funded by foreign actors are all about. They want to divide people on both the Left and Right.
For Moscow and others, the goal is to prove that democracy is weak and brittle and to undermine a system of government that is based on values such as free speech, government accountability, and checks on power.
Critiques of democracy not only strengthen claims to power by leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it also makes America, a formidable foe, a far weaker rival whose people are focused on manufactured internal threats rather than looming international ones.
Such efforts, in theory, should also be easily countered if states had systems in place that would allow for a manual audit verifying the integrity of the result. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case in every state.
With midterm elections in just 15 days, officials must be ready with an immediate response to an indication of such a disinformation effort. And, once the votes are cast and the election fervor dies down, election security must remain in the forefront of cybersecurity conversations.