With just one week to go until the U.S. midterm elections, a key senior U.S. official is expressing concerns that misinformation, or influence operations by U.S. adversaries, could ignite violence at the polls.
For weeks, top officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security have said they have found no traces of specific or credible threats to the November 8 vote.
But increasingly officials have voiced fears about the heightened domestic political tensions that have gripped much of the country and about how that could play out on Election Day when mixed with false or misleading narratives, sometimes from foreign countries such as Russia, China and Iran.
“It’s a significant concern,” Jen Easterly, director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) told a forum Tuesday in Washington. “You’ve got disinformation and misinformation, which can be used by foreign adversaries to sow discord among the American people to undermine confidence in the integrity of our elections and to incite violence against election officials.”
In addition,”you’ve got these horrible physical security concerns at an unprecedented level, threats of intimidation, of violence, of harassment against election officials, polling places, voters,” she said.
CISA, which serves as the lead risk management agency for election security, is not alone in its worries.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has repeatedly warned about the potential for violence during the midterm elections, saying as far back as June that the election could serve as a rallying point for domestic extremists bent on violence.
And senior U.S. law enforcement officials have likewise warned the number of threats against election workers and election officials has grown dramatically, with more than 1,000 reports since June 2021.
Of those, almost 60% have come from seven states, all of which saw the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election challenged by skeptics or audited because of unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.
“It is a very sad state of affairs when election officials are worried about their security,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told a conference in Virginia last week. “We have reports of a number of election officials expressing concern.”
State and local officials have also reported seeing more calls for violence on social media, including threats against election officials and some calls for a civil war.
Watch related video by Anita Powell:
Officials with both DHS and CISA say they have responded by working closely with state and local officials who have the ultimate responsibility for running elections, sharing the latest threat intelligence and helping to coordinate with law enforcement officials.
CISA has also been holding classes for election workers on how to deescalate potential confrontations, going as far as to post a shortened version on YouTube.
Additionally, CISA and state election officials and organizations have sought to push back against potential influence operations designed to spread false and misleading information, promoting websites like CISA’s Rumor Control site, designed to debunk narratives aimed at creating confusion and doubt.
While senior U.S. officials have yet to draw a direct link between specific disinformation and specific cases of election-related violence, they say there is no doubt adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran have consistently pushed to increase political tensions within the U.S.
“We know our foreign adversaries are doing this,” FBI Assistant Director for Counterterrorism Robert Wells said last week, pointing to Russia in particular.
“Russia likes to sit back and watch the United States kind of tear ourselves apart,” he said. “I think they like what they’re seeing but they will definitely take steps to fan the flames on social media.”
And officials worry about what will happen when those efforts are combined with a growing anti-government and anti-authority sentiment.
“Myriad conspiracy theories continue to proliferate, with various narratives associated with false claims about the  election,” said DHS Assistant Secretary Samantha Vinograd, noting those claims “have a historical basis in cementing clear and credible violence.”
“We have also seen the window between aspirational rhetoric online, or seemingly aspirational rhetoric online, and action narrow significantly,” she said, speaking alongside the FBI’s Wells. “We are certainly very focused on what we consider to be an incredibly heightened threat environment.”