New Haven Independent

Connecticut is paying the postage for all absentee ballots and absentee ballot applications in the state this year. But residents may have seen a meme claiming that absentee ballots require two stamps — which, in Connecticut, is not the case.

That’s an example of the kind of false information about the electoral process that Secretary of the State Denise Merrill’s office says it is focused on countering this year.

So far, Connecticut has hired an intelligence analyst to monitor the internet and is one of 11 states using new software to empower election officials of all levels to report false claims. It has also created a tool to demystify absentee voting by allowing voters to track their ballots.

Merrill spokesperson Gabe Rosenberg says the office is tasked with “identifying information regarding election administration that is not correct, and either correcting it, reporting it, or likely both.” The issue is particularly concerning “this year, when the processes have changed so dramatically to accommodate people afraid of COVID,” Merrill said.

False information comes in two different — if related — forms: misinformation and disinformation, said Shaydanay Urbani, a research reporter at First Draft News, a nonprofit that researches the issue globally. Disinformation is spread by malicious agents who seek to sow confusion and discord, whereas misinformation can be shared by people who are unaware that the information that they’re sharing is wrong or misleading. “That could be your aunt,” Urbani said.

What the Secretary of the State’s voter registration form looks like online.
What the Secretary of the State’s voter registration form looks like online.

Paid with federal funds, the state’s analyst Chris Holden will monitor the internet for both misinformation and disinformation related to Connecticut’s elections. This is the first time the Secretary of the State has contracted for this kind of assistance.

Holden has worked for the military and the Department of Defense for 20 years, according to his resume. He has a “background in processing open source intelligence data, including dark web and social media data to identify trends and threats,” Rosenberg said.

He is being paid $90 an hour and will work for the state until the end of November. Under the contract, his compensation cannot exceed $50,870. The position is being funded with some of the $5.4 million in federal funds the state received this year to bolster election security. Last year, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee reported that all 50 states were targeted by Russian operatives exploring vulnerabilities in state election security. Connecticut faced unsuccessful attempts to breach a firewall and gain access to a registry of voter information.

The Secretary of the State’s office is more concerned about viral posts that contain falsehoods as opposed to paid advertising on social media, Rosenberg said. Connecticut is one of 11 states in the nation using Squint, a tool to monitor social media launched by the nonprofit MITRE in February this year.

Source: MITRE. Credit: Kasturi Pananjady

Squint is the online equivalent of “see something, say something,” said Emily Frye, director of Cyber Integration at MITRE. The program relies on trained election officials to take screenshots of posts that contain false information about the election process. The system vets participants to make sure that they’re experts in local rules because “what’s misinformation in one jurisdiction is correct information in another,” said Marc Schneider, principal cyber security engineer at MITRE.

The screenshot is sent to MITRE for processing, where, once it’s established that the post falls within the organization’s purview, analysts extract keywords from the picture for further processing to establish patterns and trends. MITRE does not collect information about the person who shared a post with misleading information, Schneider said.

This partnership is key because “we don’t have a large office,” Merrill said “We don’t have major capability to be technologically scanning every website that’s out there.”

Squint is also free to use. “We don’t want the state budget — or budgeting process, especially in this time of year — to affect whether or not states can participate,” Schneider said. Connecticut’s election officials will be vetted and trained by the end of September, Frye said.

Squint does not collaborate directly with social media platforms, but the reports it generates can speed up the reporting process if local election officials should choose to report content to a social media company to have it taken down, Schneider added. Election officials are tasked with assembling screenshots and urls to make a case to have a post taken down, and Squint can do that for them. “When you start thinking about the scale of misinformation, start thinking about how busy election officials really are, that extra two hours or four hours really make a difference,” he said.

Rosenberg did not provide precise statistics on the rate of removal of posts that have been flagged to social media companies for containing false information, stating that the number of posts referred for review is too small. Facebook has taken down over 90% of posts flagged by California’s VoteSure program, run out of its Secretary of State’s office since 2018, ProPublica has reported.

Connecticut’s Secretary of the State’s office has partnerships with social media companies through the National Association of Secretaries of State, a nonpartisan group of secretaries of state across the country. In November last year, NASS started a #TrustedInfo2020 campaign to promote information from local election officials on matters related to voting, wrote spokesperson Maria Benson. Facebook, Google and Twitter are listed as three of the campaign’s more than 35 partners.

“Once a rumor spreads, it’s very hard to slow it down,” Urbani said, adding that efforts to correct false information don’t travel as far and wide as the original lie. The main lesson in combating disinformation and misinformation is to get ahead of the lie and to flood the zone with fact, Urbani said.

The Secretary of the State’s office has recently created a new tool to reassure voters concerned that their absentee ballots will not be counted in time, Merrill said. Voters can see whether the status of their absentee ballot applications and when their ballots are received by their town clerk offices, she said.

Secretary of State offices are also adapting to changing social media policies to communicate with voters, a task that falls to Rosenberg here in Connecticut.

Facebook recently announced that it would not run political ads in the seven days before the election, but the rule affected ads purchased by secretaries of state and local election officials to inform voters of the election process, ProPublica reported. The alternative to ads that Facebook has in place for election officials — called “Voting Alerts” — were initially more limited, sending updates only to those who followed the secretary of state’s page, provided that the did not feature the officeholder. Connecticut’s Secretary of the State page has a prominent picture of Merrill.

But Voting Alerts now reach residents in the entire state and Facebook has allowed Connecticut to set up a page to make use of the feature to distribute information about voting methods and rules. The new page also entitles the state to ad credits to recruit poll workers. “We are going to be able to participate in the Voting Alerts without changing anything related to our Facebook presence,” Rosenberg wrote.

Merrill isn’t aware of any disinformation promoted by foreign agents that has muddied the waters this election cycle in Connecticut, but when it does arise, “we’re much better prepared than we were in 2016,” she said.

Kasturi was CT Mirror’s data reporter. She is a May 2020 graduate of the Columbia Journalism School’s master’s program in data journalism and holds a degree in comparative literature from Brown University, where she was editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. Prior to joining CT Mirror, Kasturi interned for publications in India.

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