By Matthew Olney and the communications and public relations professionals at Cisco.
Editor's Note: For more on this topic, sign up for a Cisco Duo webinar on election security on Oct. 15 at 1 p.m. ET here.
In our work with our partners in the election security space, the most difficult question we’ve been asked is “What do we do about disinformation campaigns?” This isn’t something Talos usually specializes in, as it’s not a true technical security problem. However, one of the great benefits of working at Cisco is the incredible breadth of capability of our coworkers and partners. So, correctly framing the question as a communications issue, we worked with Cisco communications professionals and our outside communications partners to put together an outline of a communications plan for elections officials facing disinformation campaigns.
To help the reader understand why we’re making the recommendations we are, we will summarize here the findings of our previous reports on elections security and disinformation. In short, we have found that while one of the goals of foreign adversaries may be to favor a particular candidate, the primary objective of both disinformation campaigns and election interference up to this point is to aggravate existing social, cultural and political divisions and sow doubt about the fairness and integrity of Western democracies. The driving goal here is to weaken the United States and other global democratic powers to allow foreign adversaries to more easily achieve their geopolitical objectives. Here's a similar set of recommendations specifically for voters.Understanding these are the objectives of our adversaries, we are left to make an unfair ask of elections officials: In the face of a flood of disinformation coming from both foreign and domestic actors and while rearchitecting how we vote in the face of a pandemic, protect our democracy while the rest of the nation is distracted by one of the most contentious elections in memory. This means not just running a free and fair election, but also working and communicating in a way that reassures a deeply divided and suspicious nation that the systems we have in place will reflect the will of the people and will not be corrupted.
Our core recommendations are intended to guide election officials to building an effective, always-on communications program that builds official communications channels, actively engages the public, teaches them where to find official information and ultimately acts to help harden the public against disinformation programs. Click here for a summary of all the recommendations in this post.
Core recommendation one: Lead with your values
Because this is a battle of ideas, our first recommendation is to always lead with your values. The adversary’s objective is to convince the voting public that American democracy doesn’t work for them and that whoever wins is in some way illegitimate. State and local election officials are the human face of the democratic system and need to consistently message their commitment to American democratic
ideals. Even if you believe your actions show that you are committed to free, open and fair elections
whose outcome will reflect the will of the electorate, it still needs to be said at every opportunity. If adversaries are attempting to sow distrust in our election system, you must lead your communications with the very principles that help instill that trust.
For example, when responding to a media query about disinformation implying some weakness in the election system you are responsible for, don’t stop at just disproving the allegation. Start by stating the values that you hold that are applicable to the situation at hand, then describe the ways in which the report is incorrect. Repetition is a key communications concept, and you should never miss an opportunity to remind your voters that you are approaching your job ethically and with integrity.
Core recommendation two: Build multiple communications paths ahead of time
One of the few advantages that election officials have in this fight is that they can prepare their voters and can go beyond simply informing voters about how elections are run. Instead, they can train voters on where to get official information. Tactically speaking, this means election officials should create and use social media with official, verified accounts, they should update websites that provide timely and accurate voting information, and they need to actively communicate with voters on where they can find up-to-date trusted information.
Part of this means building paths that are as “official” as possible to both make it difficult for attackers to emulate the paths but also to make it easier for voters to trust the information. For example, election official websites should be created in the .gov domain, so that voters become used to getting official information from sites with .gov domains, which are harder for actors to obtain. Websites should also use SSL/TLS, because voters have been taught to look for the lock icon, and some web browsers may warn voters that go to websites without this security feature, reducing their trust in the site.
Social media accounts should be verified by the social media company as official and the accounts should be secured through two-factor authentication. The accounts should be active, updated and checked regularly by a member of staff you trust, and should use consistent messaging and linguistic style. Consider content that points to helpful resources such as election official websites and social media accounts of trusted partners.
Voters should also be given active avenues to address the disinformation that they encounter. Teach voters how to contact election officials and where to go to address concerning information they receive. Give them an email address to forward questions to, or a phone number to call when questions come up. And for your staff who are responsible for answering these questions, prepare (and consistently update) a Q&A document that they can reference so every member of your team provides a consistent answer. Encourage voters to actively pass on disinformation that they are exposed to, so that you can decide if and how to respond to that disinformation more broadly.
And be sure to share the social media handles in all of your communications with media, elected officials and any other public communication.
Core recommendation three: Focus on your Audience and narrative
At its core, this is a contest between election officials and foreign adversaries for the trust of the electorate. Election officials must mount an active counter-communications campaign and not simply respond to individual disinformation events. This means having a communications plan supported by coworkers, advocates and partners. Understand the many ways you can reach voters. If you haven’t already, start engaging media and key stakeholders so they understand your ongoing work and can learn about where to access accurate information regarding the steps you are taking.
Be sure to directly address how the various administrative and technical controls protect the integrity of the voting process. Engage local media early to brief them on the security measures being taken to protect the vote, monitor social media and inbound queries for persistent questions that need to be addressed. Have a campaign plan to engage voters and educate them on how to vote and on how your work has built a secure voting environment.
Core recommendation four: Relentless focus on facts
Because you have an active, engaged adversary who is watching what and how you say things, your statements must be carefully crafted and be fully, obviously factual. Any misstep, whether intentional or otherwise, will be used by the adversary to power further disinformation activity to call into question the candor, truthfulness and dedication to the fairness of your office. Nothing will undermine you more quickly than your office providing factually incorrect information.
This is particularly true and challenging during crisis communications when stress and the rapidly evolving understanding of an incident can make it difficult to address these questions. In crafting responses, if a spokesperson is not fully certain they have the relevant facts in front of them, the responsible course of action is to take the time necessary to gather the facts of the situation and then promptly provide the information. As we’ll address below, it is also appropriate to let media, elected officials, voters and interested parties know that you are engaged and working on finding the appropriate facts. Disinformation can balloon in silence. Let voters know you, as the experts, are engaged and getting the best information.
Core recommendation five: Avoid partisanship
While many election officials are elected as representatives of a political party, their role necessitates a neutral, referee approach to administering elections. Regardless of party, Americans expect and deserve a non-partisan approach to the administration of elections. Election officials should make every effort to steer clear of partisan talking points and activities – especially those around election issues. As the people who run the elections, they must be seen in all their actions and words as committed to free and fair elections. Adversaries will take advantage of statements and decisions that come across as rooted in partisanship to attack the fundamental fairness of elections.
Core recommendation six: Use media listening tools
Disinformation can travel quickly, so it’s important to track it where it lives. There are several tools available to allow election officials to monitor social media and various news sites to understand what stories are currently circulating, both in traditional press and through social media sharing and forwarding. One example is TweetDeck, which we’ve seen used by the election community to monitor keywords related to election activity so they can track community sentiment and mis/disinformation related to elections. These applications allow officials to determine which current narratives require a cohesive communications plan to address and hopefully put officials in a position to get out ahead of emerging disinformation campaigns.
Core recommendation seven: Prepare voters for change
In 2020, how we vote and how that vote is counted may be different from how voters have seen this in the past. Adversaries will use any change as evidence for malicious activity and will push a narrative that the vote is being manipulated because things don’t look like they normally do. Elections officials should be actively engaged in a full media and communications campaign to engage voters and prepare them for how this year’s election might look different than past elections. This should be a multi-vector communications effort, utilizing all the communications paths that election officials have created as well as utilizing advocates and media. The intent is to prepare the voters with fact-based assessments of the realities of the election in advance, so that adversaries will be less able to leverage these changes in disinformation campaigns.
When things go wrong, trust is protected and built by actions and by the way organizations respond and communicate. This is particularly true when there is an adversary actively working to create crisis situations and is also waiting to pounce on missteps during the response. Most members of the public only hear from election officials in a press conference or quoted in a news article when things go wrong. Properly handling these moments can safeguard the faith the public has in election administration. Our recommendations here are intended to guide election officials to provide factual, accurate and timely information while avoiding giving adversaries story hooks to drive further disinformation campaigns.
Crisis comms recommendation one: Buy time to gather the facts
When unexpected events occur, election officials will likely be presented with questions before they fully understand the scope, scale or substance of the event. Officials should not feel the need to answer questions in the moment they are asked but should instead take the time to gather the appropriate and factual answers and then provide them. Even good-faith errors that are made during the fog of an emerging incident will be used by adversaries to call into question the competence or goodwill of elections officials. Get the facts straight first, and then provide the answers.
While accuracy is the most important element of your communications strategy, being timely is a close second. As mentioned above, silence from experts can be the fuel disinformation needs to spread. Make sure that you respond in real-time to media inquiries letting them know that you are engaged, looking into an issue and – remember to lead with your values – committed to making sure voters have accurate information ahead of a free, open and fair election whose outcome will reflect the will of the electorate.
Crisis comms recommendation two: Don’t directly reference disinformation sources
Acknowledging a piece of disinformation can unintentionally bring more attention to a claim than would otherwise occur. When attempting to discredit disinformation avoid pointing to or linking to a source of disinformation. Instead, push out the correct information to as many sources as possible and do not give people reason to engage with disinformation sources.
Crisis comms recommendation three: Remember the positive
When things aren’t going perfectly, it is good to remind the public of progress being made, where successes are and show how things are improving. The core of the media narrative is frequently negative and can unfairly paint affected organizations in a negative light. It is important to take every opportunity to provide the full story – both positives and negatives – across all channels. It can be difficult to highlight positive events based solely on questions posed by media, so be sure to frame answers to questions in a way that will leave the public fully informed on all aspects of the story. In order to make sure the full context reaches as many voters as possible, consider posting the full response on official social media channels.
Crisis comms recommendation four: Engage the media
Work with the media to get an accurate picture of the environment out to the public. When there are errors in stories, work with reporters and ask them to issue a correction. When you have net new information, push it to the media and through other communications channels to get that information out to as much of the public as possible. Remember, reporters may not know the right question to ask, so provide what you know to be true and the information the public needs to be truly informed. Put together a list of media contacts so that when you have an update to your messaging it can be distributed as broadly as possible.
Crisis comms recommendation five: Lean on your expertise
Ultimately, the people who most understand how elections are run are the state and local election officials. The public and others will frequently assume how things work and start forming opinions from there. Assert yourself as the expert on the election system and highlight the controls that ensure the integrity of the election. Elections are complicated, especially as you drill into the details. Make sure to highlight all the elements of an election, and how they come together to provide a free and fair election and how they are constructed to protect the integrity of that election.
Ultimately, countering a disinformation campaign is a challenge that requires preparation far in advance. We already see these recommendations in use by much of the election community, with excellent communications paths, education campaigns and fact-based information being passed to the public. Our hope is by putting all these recommendations in one place, even election officials operating on their own without the full support of a professional communications team can use them to offset the impact of disinformation campaigns.
Teaching your audience where to find official information, always messaging your dedication to free and fair elections and appropriately responding to disinformation as it comes out is a lot of work, but in today’s environment, it is one of the most important jobs that elections officials do. While almost everyone focuses on who is going to win the contest, election officials across the country focus on the integrity and fairness of the contest. That fact, more than any other, is a critical one to communicate to the country.