- - Thursday, September 19, 2019

Americans accustomed to the feel of a rock-solid republic may be vexed by tremors in the body politic. Some of the bad vibrations are clearly the repercussions of the two predominant political parties arrayed in thunderous battle against each other. Building in intensity, though, is a throbbing sense that the nation is losing its ability for holding fair elections to public office. On the threshold of the 2020 presidential campaign, voters must hold to account any faction scheming to fiddle with voting machines or with voters’ heads.

Donald Trump’s unexpected 2016 White House victory and the subsequent exhaustive investigation into Russian election meddling jarred the public’s confidence in the nation’s capacity for untainted electioneering. Two years on, the shock hasn’t ceased and neither have the threats to the system.

A survey of attendees in advance of the annual Black Hat USA conference for security professionals in Las Vegas last month found that 63 percent believe the next presidential election will be affected by the hacking of voting machines. Titled “Consumers in the Crosshairs,” the survey turned up the same proportion saying they expect Russia to mount cyber-attacks from overseas that will succeed in impacting the election process.

Russia isn’t the only nation fully engaged in cyber-attacks. The Center for Strategic and International Studies maintains a database of “significant cyber incidents” during the past 12 months. China is fingered as the purported culprit in the lion’s share of attacks, with Iran and North Korea joining Russia as lesser offenders. And while the majority of incidents are defense-related, the Russians don’t seem to regret the uproar they triggered in 2016: Brushing off its election-tampering playbook, Moscow has been allegedly at it again, this time targeting European government agencies prior to European Union elections in May.

The cybersecurity experts polled also expressed concern over the danger of social media platforms being used to manipulate information accessed by voters. Relying on election-related information posted on social media to form opinions was rated unwise by 75 percent of respondents, with 80 percent advising that reliance on Facebook, the most popular site, as particularly risky.

Similar concerns have filtered down to regular users. “Disinformation and the 2020 election: How the Social Media Industry Should Prepare,” a September report released by New York University, predicts that in 2020, Instagram “will be the vehicle of choice for people who wish to disseminate meme-based information.” Under a credibility cloud, Instagram garners “some trust” by a meager 23 percent of Americans, according to an Institute for Public Relations survey cited in the report. Parent company Facebook scores only slightly higher at 29 percent. Facebook ranked higher than its subsidiary, 64-46 percent, in the unenviable category of being viewed as “somewhat responsible” for spreading disinformation.

Federal officials are scrambling in various directions to prepare for fresh disruptions to the election process. Two measures are pending in the U.S. Senate that would impose automatic sanctions on any nation found to be meddling in U.S. balloting. One introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, would penalize Russian oil firms and financial institutions for interference. Another bill by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Bob Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, would go further and target the financial interests of Russian political figures, including President Vladimir Putin.

Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub is warning the heads of Facebook, Google and Twitter on the need for vigilance against the infiltration of digital disinformation with the approach of the 2020 elections. Unraveling the distinction between “fake news” and the real thing constitutes a virtual Gordian Knot that threatens to entangle the popular platforms in First Amendment violations.

Americans learning recently that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey had his own Twitter account penetrated by a hacker who filled his page with racial slurs may despair of steering clear of mischief-makers wreaking havoc in cyberspace. There is little citizens can do other than roll the dice and hope that knights in shining cyber-armor succeed in blocking malicious hackers from breaching the nation’s computerized ballot-tallying systems.

No one, though, is forced to depend on social media for reliable information. There are publications out there, including this one, that still honor the old saw of the no-nonsense newspaperman: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. Objective news is the basis for an informed choice.

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