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US Officials Are More Worried About The Media Being Hacked Than The Ballot Box

Fake news stories, rumors on social media sites, and tampering with unofficial election results, are the real cause for concern when the US goes to the polls next week, officials say.

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SAN FRANCISCO — Despite cataclysmic headlines warning of hacked voting machines and systems on November 8, election monitoring experts and government officials told BuzzFeed News that their greatest concern is rumors spreading on social media sites and the undermining of unofficial results the night of the vote, both of which can color how the US will see the election of the next president.

It’s much more likely (and plausible) that a foreign government such as Russia would try to influence the public discourse around the vote by publishing false articles, spreading rumors of rigged results on Twitter, and attempting to corrupt the unofficial results reported by national media outlets, said national security experts who spoke to BuzzFeed News.

“Disinformation campaigns, creating doubt around elections results, this is something we’ve seen Russia do in the past. There is a pattern of Russia targeting the soft underbelly of the voting system,” said one US security official based in DC. He asked to speak anonymously as he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. “Why go through all the work of changing official voting results when you can get a news agency to misreport the results of a key swing state, or create a viral fake news story claiming that a swing state has had its system rigged?”

Russia has already been accused of trying to interfere in the US elections by hacking into the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and leaking thousands of emails in an attempt to damage the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. But in the months since the hack, a more subversive organized campaign has attempted to influence the conversation online.

Professional trolls, backed by the Russian state, have admitted to creating and disseminating fake news articles which bolster Trump and denounce Hillary, while tens of thousands of Twitter bots, capable of popularizing certain topics, have been deployed to spread hashtags such as #Trumpwon after each debate. Used on November 8, those types of tools could be enough to create chaos within voting populations who have been fed a steady diet of stories that the elections could be easily hacked or rigged.

“Something election officials will be doing, will be paying close attention to this year, is what is happening on social media sites,” Merle King, executive director at the Center for Election Systems at Kennesaw State University, told BuzzFeed News. “The rumors that get started, the accusations, those can be very damaging. If, for instance, a false rumor is spread that a certain voting station is closed and then people don’t go vote there, that is something we will be watching for.”

In addition to the manipulation of media online, experts are watching for attempts to influence the unofficial results published in the hours after the polls close on November 8. Experts who study the voting process and secure voting systems have argued that a mass hacking of the actual vote would be extremely difficult to carry out, requiring hundreds of hackers to be deployed across various states, and that rigging machines ahead of the vote is unlikely given how frequently they are checked by Republican and Democratic officials. Official results, which are only reported in the week following the vote, are meticulously checked and hand-delivered by each state.

And the US government is on watch and ready to safeguard those official results. "Any hacking in connection with this nation's election system is something we take extraordinarily seriously," read a statement from the FBI emailed to BuzzFeed News. "The FBI is looking into what the actors are up to, what their activity involves, and what's the scope of their actions. That work is ongoing."

However, unofficial results, which are often reported election night by television stations and news sites off of polling data compiled by news agencies like the Associated Press are often the public’s first indication of who has won. And those results, said the experts, are not nearly as secure.

“Election night reporting has gotten considerably more complicated as newspapers, TV, and radio stations have reduced their reporting infrastructure in the last decade,” King said. Media, he said, are increasingly tapping into the same data to try and predict which way a state will swing, rather than attempting to gather results from their own reporters on the ground doing exit interviews. “The media has a vested interest in that election night reporting system working in a way they didn’t have before.”

There are examples of Russia tampering in the elections of other countries, which cybersecurity experts point to as examples of what the US might face next week.

In Ukraine’s 2012 presidential vote, cybersecurity experts believe Russian hackers attempted to fake computer vote totals. Their cyberattacks, which began four days prior to the May 25 vote, first targeted the central election computers and deleted key files which made the vote-tallying system used in Ukraine inoperable. The hackers then boasted online that they had managed to destroy Ukraine’s voting system, prompting a panic from the public.

While the Ukrainian government was able to fix their system, they discovered that an additional virus had been installed on the Central Election Commission computers just 40 minutes before they were set to publish the results of the vote. The virus would have allowed the hackers to give the win to the ultra-nationalist candidate, Dmytro Yarosh, rather than the actual winner Petro Poroshenko, according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor. Interestingly, at least one Russian news agency, state-owned Channel One, went ahead and declared Yarosh the winner with 37% of the vote (the exact amount the virus was set to give him.) The following morning, DDoS attacks hit Ukraine’s systems, delaying the final tally of the vote for hours and leading to accusations of voter fraud and misconduct.

Meanwhile, in the parliamentary elections held in the Balkan state of Montenegro just two weeks ago, the incumbent candidate nearly lost to a pro-Russian coalition, amid accusations that Russia not only funneled money to the opposition candidates, but set up media outlets to try and promote those candidates. NBC News reported that an Obama national security official said that Russia launched a disinformation campaign which claimed voting irregularities had occurred during the vote and that dead people had been registered to vote. The claims are eerily similar to those which have been made recently in the US by the Trump campaign.

"It's the kind of thing that we are anticipating that they will try here," the unnamed official told NBC. "But they will target whatever they can — voting infrastructure, putting out false stories about the Democratic Party intentionally manipulating the results. That's what they do."

Russia has denied meddling in the elections in Ukraine, Montenegro, or the US.

Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F

Contact Sheera Frenkel at sheera.frenkel@buzzfeed.com.

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