WASHINGTON – Trupania Bonner is quick to warn groups registering minorities to vote to be alert for cybertricks.
His training class for civic engagement groups now includes discussions about cyberthreats and the Media and Democracy Institute’s new resource guide coming out this month features tips on how to help guard against hackers and interference through social media.
“We’re telling groups not only should they pay attention to what happens in the voting booth on Election Day, but what happens long before Election Day,” said Bonner, a facilitator for the New Orleans-based group that provides get-out-the-vote training across the South. “It’s just being on the lookout for fake websites, fake social media sites or ones nudging you to support a candidate or sway you from a particular candidate.”
The institute’s effort is one of several civil rights and civic engagement groups are adopting to protect against cyberthreats and other attempts to interfere through social media ahead of midterm elections as many organizations ramp up get-out-the vote campaigns targeting minorities.
The campaigns rely heavily on social media to reach voters and share information, including where and how to register. But groups worry that comes with the risk of manipulation and hacking so they’re taking it upon themselves to beef up security.
“That is a serious concern,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, which has launched a national GOTV effort. “I am actually shocked that Congress and this administration are not taking much more serious the threat of a foreign nation tampering with our election.”
The effort comes in the wake of U.S. intelligence reports that Russians attempted to meddle in the 2016 elections.
Civil rights groups also point to reports that hackers tried to use social media platforms, such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, to fuel racial divisiveness and spread misinformation particularly to minority voters. Federal officials said Russians also hacked Democratic political groups. Blacks traditionally tend to support Democratic candidates.
Microsoft said recently it uncovered Russian hackers targeting political groups and conservative think tanks.
Ray Block, a political scientist and associate professor of African-American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky, said he’s not sure Russian hackers will try again but noted that many believe they will.
“Whether we can fight is up to us,” Block said. “The idea is you don’t want people to start thinking that people on the outside could have more sway over what happens in our elections than we do on the inside. I feel like that sentiment is strong enough that I would suspect that there should be some bipartisan effort before the midterm election rolls around to ensure that the public doesn’t feel like the legitimacy of the upcoming elections hasn’t been compromised by the specter of what happened in 2016.”
States recently received $380 million in federal funds approved by Congress to help protect against cyberthreats. State election officials say they need more money.
Civil rights group said they can’t wait for Congress.
The NAACP set up a system for its members to text the word NAACP to a special number so they communicate directly to share information and alerts about problems at the polls.
Johnson said the NAACP developed the program to counter reports that hackers used social media to push false information.
“We don’t want to take anything for granted considering the lack of action this administration and Congress have taken to ensure the integrity of the midterm election,” he said.
Bonner said he urges civic engagement groups to anticipate more attacks.
“The alarms are already going off,” he said, noting the Microsoft announcement. “I do believe this will intensify in coming months.”
The Rev. Gregory Holston, executive director of POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild), is relying on direct contact with voters to counter misinformation attempts. He said it’s also important to focus on local issues.
“That Russian piece is not about the local piece, so give people a reason to vote on the local level and then they’ll be less susceptible to those” outside influences, he said.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, which has been registering blacks to vote across the South, plans to hire experts to protect her group’s effort.
“They basically scared the daylights out of us about how much our information can be exploited,’’ she said.
Brown said someone tried to use her picture and her organization to collect money.
“Grassroots and community groups have to be really, really conscience around cybersecurity,” she said.
But Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples Agenda, said her group hardly mentions the threat of Russian interference because it doesn’t want to scare potential voters who are already wary of election systems.
“I’m concerned about anything that would dissuade voters from participating, and we’re trying to counter that and ensure that people know it’s easy to vote and we’re here to help you,” she said. “We’ll hold your hand if that’s what you need.”
Social media companies, including Facebook, also have an obligation to do more, said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
They should be “making sure that they’re monitoring, making sure they do what they can,’’ Campbell said. “Our democracy is being adversely impacted by misinformation and fake sites.”
Civic engagement groups said they’re also concerned social media can be used to disseminate false information about their leaders and organizations. They’re not sure it’s just the Russians.
During the civil rights movement, some state and federal officials tried to quash efforts to register blacks to vote often by smearing leaders.
“There’s always been an effort to undermine and discredit those who are leading the movement,” Brown said. “We are acutely aware of how there’s always been (attempts at) infiltration in our movement to exploit and abuse messages. It didn’t start with Russia. Russia is just following suit where we’ve seen even the U.S. government do with black leaders in this country.”
Experts said there have been other efforts to target minorities with misinformation, including flyers or robocalls with wrong polling sites or days to vote.
“Overwhelming the polls with (voters) has always been a useful strategy against something like that,” Block said. “That’s the reason why mobilization is extremely important. If there’s an information war GOTV efforts can help with the balance of the information.”
Contributing: Erin Kelly