False claims about the accuracy of voting machines that have spread across social media and alternative news platforms since the 2020 presidential election are likely to increase following Tuesday’s midterm elections, according to a report released by cybersecurity firm Recorded Future’s Insikt Group on Monday.
The report, Hoax in the Machine: Disinformation Against Voting Systems Manufacturers and Technologies in the 2022 US Midterm Elections, examined falsehoods about voting systems manufacturers—or VSMs—“generated between the 2020 general election and the 2022 midterm elections.”
Recorded Future’s analysts found that many of the claims about the accuracy of voting machines have been directed at three major VSMs: Dominion Voting Systems, Smartmatic and Election Systems & Software. As the report noted, all three companies faced unsubstantiated allegations of election fraud in the wake of the 2020 election. Dominion and Smartmatic have both filed multiple defamation lawsuits against allies of former President Donald Trump and right-wing media outlets for claiming that their machines were rigged to favor President Joe Biden.
“Recorded Future has already identified claims across numerous facets of the mainstream and alternative social media landscape suggesting that technologies deployed by the aforementioned companies will be used to falsify the results of the midterms,” the report said.
Much of the mis- and disinformation targeting the VSMs identified in the report was “concentrated on far-right and ultraconservative alternative social media platforms and ‘news’ blogs,” and included claims that the companies’ voting machines deleted or switched votes, or worked in tandem with federal agencies to rig election results. Recorded Future’s analysts found that many of the falsehoods about the three VSMs that circulated in the wake of the 2020 election continue to proliferate across a variety of social media websites ahead of the midterms, including on mainstream platforms like Facebook and Telegram, as well as on more fringe sites like Gab, 4chan and Qanon forums.
The report also found that Scytl—a VSM headquartered in Spain whose technologies were not used in any U.S. elections in 2020 and will not be used in the 2022 midterms—“had an outsized presence among conspiracy theories due to allegations of foreign vote tabulation involving the company.”
Although the report noted that “the vast majority of false information targeting VSMs is likely to originate from domestic sources in the U.S. rather than from foreign influence,” an analyst with Recorded Future’s Insikt Group told Nextgov that foreign actors are both overtly and covertly amplifying these falsehoods through state-owned media outlets and covert propaganda accounts on social media.
“Nation-state influencers very likely track false information narratives online and, if they’re popular, align their own influence efforts with those narratives,” the Recorded Future analyst said. “This is true whether the narratives originated from the nation-state influencers or domestic audiences. If the narrative of ‘rigged voting machines’ continues after the U.S. midterms, which it almost certainly will, then we’ll likely see nation-state influencers—particularly from Russia—repeating and adding to this narrative moving forward.”
A previous report released by Recorded Future on Oct. 13 found that nation-state adversaries—including China, Iran and Russia—and domestic extremists were involved in malign influence campaigns targeting the 2022 midterms.
Regardless of their origins, these claims of rigged voting machines are likely to have the most resonance in closely contested House, Senate and gubernatorial races. While the report noted that “no election jurisdiction is immune to VSM disinformation,” it said that certain battleground states—including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—are “most likely to be the targets of continual VSM disinformation efforts” during and after the 2022 midterms.
“Election administrators in such jurisdictions should be prepared for hyper-scrutiny of both voting technologies used and administrators themselves in connection to the technologies’ functioning,” the report added.
Given the number of election deniers running for public office in the midterms—an October report from the Brookings Institution identified 345 candidates for state and federal positions “who have expressed election denial beliefs”—an increase in the number of elected officials pushing false claims of rigged voting machines could also continue to erode trust in the electoral process moving forward.
“My concerns are that some of these election deniers have already refused to say whether they would accept the result of the election if they lost, and that because they have a following, they will leverage the narrative that voting machines are being used to ‘fix’ the elections,” the Recorded Future analyst said. “This would likely increase the amount of people that believe this narrative and could build momentum for it ahead of the 2024 elections.”
And the continued promotion of these falsehoods could have both domestic and global implications. The report said that “U.S. election denialism and VSM disinformation harm the democratic world at large,” particularly since the three VSMs identified in the report “will likely continue to face echoes of U.S.-based conspiracies concerning their voting technologies in other elections around the world.”
For many cyber experts, mis- and disinformation about U.S. voting systems poses a greater threat to the electoral process than the risk of cyberattacks to election infrastructure. Bad actors, in particular, have increasingly been targeting their false claims at diverse and non-English speaking communities, necessitating greater engagement from federal officials and even some non-profit organizations.
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and the FBI previously issued two joint public service announcements in October that outlined some of the election security controls in place to defend voting systems from outside intrusion and described how foreign actors are likely to engage in manipulation tactics “intended to undermine confidence in the election processes and influence public opinion of the elections’ legitimacy.” CISA has also established a Rumor vs. Reality website to combat false election claims, and has been directing the American public to seek voting-related guidance and information from their state and local election officials.