With less than three months to the midterm elections, American voters remain vulnerable to the same type of information warfare that Russia used to interfere with the 2016 presidential race. Election officials say voting systems are better protected against hackers than they were two years ago, but intelligence experts say the federal government hasn't tackled the threat of foreign-created disinformation on social media.
The risk endures after Russian nationals used hundreds of fake social media accounts to stoke political discord in the U.S. in 2016, according to an indictment earlier this year by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
"The spreading of misinformation and disinformation is one of the single greatest threats to our democratic process," says National Association of Secretaries of State President Jim Condos, a Democrat who is also Vermont's Secretary of State. "As we saw in 2016, our foreign adversaries used these tactics to sow doubt with voters and weaken voter confidence in the integrity of our elections."
Now the nation’s most populous state is pushing back, launching an unprecedented effort to address the issue.
Earlier this month, the California legislature approved the creation of an Office of Elections Cybersecurity to be overseen by Democratic Secretary of State Alex Padilla. He expects Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown to support the new office, which Padilla says would be "the first of its kind in the nation, as far as we understand."
In addition to addressing cyber threats to California's voting systems, the office would proactively root out false information online about the state’s electoral process, including where and how to vote. Staffers would monitor social media platforms like California-based Facebook and Twitter, then coordinate with local election authorities -- or directly with those companies -- to remove the falsehoods. The office would also work with the press and through its own social media channels to provide the public with accurate information.
"Any dynamic out there that causes voter confusion is bad for voting rights and bad for elections," says Padilla, "and we have a responsibility to address it."
Ample evidence of the nation's vulnerability to misinformation surfaced just this week. Microsoft announced that it found and shut down half a dozen websites created by a Russian-affiliated group impersonating the U.S. Senate and conservative think tanks. Facebook nixed hundreds of accounts, pages and groups it said were part of disinformation campaigns from Russia and Iran. And Twitter removed hundreds of accounts, including many linked to Iran, engaging in what the social media company called "coordinated manipulation."
Last year, Congress held hearings on election disinformation that appeared on social media during 2016, including a doctored photo of comedian Aziz Ansari urging Americans to "vote from home" via Twitter. Another posting encouraged voters to cast ballots for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by text. (Neither of these are viable voting options.)
Democratic California Assemblyman Marc Berman, who introduced the bill creating the elections cybersecurity office, stresses that it won’t get involved in the substance of political debates between candidates and campaigns.
"We're not trying to play police on who's exaggerating their resume, or lying about their opponent, or anything that could be more subjective," he says. "You'd have to appropriate a billion dollars, and you'd run into tricky First Amendment issues." (The new office will cost California taxpayers $2 million annually, according to StateScoop.)
Social media companies are already grappling with First Amendment issues around political speech. YouTube, Facebook, Apple and Spotify all recently decided to pull content from right-wing media personality and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, angering some conservatives and free speech advocates.
Given that President Trump downplays Russia’s role in influencing his election and often refers to the media as "fake news," some Republicans may diminish the need for California's effort. Chris Powell, a spokesman for Arkansas Republican Secretary of State Mark Martin, questions whether it's the state government's role to help remove election-related online content.
"People are free to post whatever they like in our country. We don't censor things like China," he says, adding that "Russian meddling is not anything new in American politics. They've been doing it for decades. They didn't change any votes."
But Padilla argues the balance he’s attempting to strike is straightforward.
"I believe in freedom of speech," he says. "I also believe in the right of voters to have good, accurate information about elections and their opportunity to vote."
Even if it's successful, California’s effort won’t be easily replicated in other states, according to Eric Covey, a spokesman for National Association of Secretaries of State President Jim Condos.
"We certainly applaud Secretary Padilla’s efforts," Covey says, "but the reality is that most states do not have the resources that California has to do something as grand in scope. However, that isn’t to say that we don’t dedicate daily resources to this issue with our whole team. Cybersecurity and election integrity are top priorities, and something we think about and work on every single day."
Clint Watts, a distinguished research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, says, "It really takes a federal solution, working with social media companies." But he says, "if any state could do it, it would be California," given its size and the presence of Silicon Valley.
Berman acknowledges that it's unusual for California to take such an aggressive role to preserve election integrity. "But," he says, "we're in incredibly unusual times."