For most of 2022, senior intelligence analyst Brian Liston noted it was quiet on the fake U.S. social media accounts believed to be from Russia.
That changed in August as the U.S. midterm elections approached.
“We saw these accounts beginning to spin up, talking about election fraud or that the election was going to be fraudulent, with ballot stuffing and things like that, or Democrats are going to try to steal the election,” said Liston, who works for Recorded Future, a cybersecurity firm.
Liston is among a network of researchers, cybersecurity experts, government agencies and others that comb through social media, websites, state media and law enforcement announcements to track coordinated disinformation campaigns stemming from U.S. adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran.
Fake news sites by organizations associated with these governments promote divisive stories about America that are then promoted by fake social media personas pretending to be Americans.
Russian operatives sow division that the U.S. voting system can’t be trusted, Liston said. Chinese operatives highlight the volume of online anxiety about the integrity of the vote as evidence that American democracy is not working.
“As much as they talk about election denial and voter fraud, I remain concerned that maybe these accounts come Election Day would attempt to provoke some sort of violence or harassment of poll workers at polling stations and things like that,” he said. Recorded Future analysts will be monitoring chatter if the online discussions start to shift, he said.
Twitter took down China-based operations on its site that were trying to influence the U.S. midterms, The Washington Post reported. A representative for the Chinese embassy in Washington denied that the country was behind the accounts, the Post reported.
Twitter also took down three networks associated with Iran, the report said.
In Tempe, Arizona, Dylan Murphy was in town for work. A mathematician from Tucson, Murphy said he worries about the real-world consequences of online misinformation.
“My concern is that foreign actors can spread disinformation and conspiracy theories through social media and kind of pit Americans against each other in a way they wouldn’t be, left to their own devices,” he said.
While online disinformation particularly from foreign actors is not new, he said, what is new is people taking action.
“We’re seeing more in-person direct action resulting from these conspiracy theories, such as people showing up to ballot drop boxes here in Arizona, armed,” he said.
A Falstaff, Arizona, man who gave his name as Fred was having lunch with his parents in Tempe last week. He said he mostly worries about the influence of money on elections. But he does wonder about the voting system, he said.
“I would say I have concerns about the system,” he said. “Who’s to say that they count all the votes properly?”
Arizona was a big part of electoral challenges to the presidential election two years ago, with a Republican recount of results in Maricopa County ultimately confirming a Joe Biden win. Many Donald Trump supporters continue to say that election was stolen, among them Arizona Republican candidate for governor, Kari Lake.
Maricopa County elections officials say ballot tabulation machines are not connected to the internet. They livestream voters delivering ballots to drop boxes and ballots being counted.
“In addition to physical security, we also have security over the ballots and over the process,” said Megan Gilbertson, a representative for the Maricopa County Elections Department.
She cited “bipartisan boards, political party observers and checks throughout the process to make sure that each ballot is accounted for, and only valid ballots are counted.”
In Arizona, where early voting is under way, voter Miriam Mitchell put her ballot in a ballot drop box at the Maricopa County Elections office in downtown Phoenix.
“Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, sometimes we don’t win, and we felt that they should have won, but we still follow the democratic process. We hand over the torch like we’re supposed to,” she said. “That’s the only thing that’s great about America is our democratic process. And we need to hold on to that.”