Election Meddling Drives DHS to Seek Help Tracking Social Media

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The Homeland Security Department has posted a help-wanted ad to track and analyze social media disinformation campaigns by Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea targeting the U.S. 2020 election.

“There is a significant amount of foreign influence activity targeting U.S. 2020 elections on social media platforms,” the DHS said in its June 30 solicitation. The intelligence community’s “lack of capability and resources in this area result in this activity being left largely untracked.”

The “foreign influence collection and analysis will result in raw and finished intelligence products that support election security and countering foreign influence efforts,” it said. The DHS said it wants access to software tools and training for social media monitoring by agency personnel, though the contractor would also engage in monitoring and analysis.

The solicitation’s open warning of foreign efforts, including from Russia, to interfere in U.S. domestic politics marks a call for help, just four months before the November elections, to counter a threat that’s been long known.

“They’ve had four years of runway to get prepared for the 2020 election and to stop foreign interference, let alone internal interference from other extremist groups from within the United States,” Sam Woolley, author of “The Reality Game” and a University of Texas at Austin professor, said in an interview. “This move by DHS shows that the current administration hasn’t taken this issue seriously.”

(Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Bloomberg)
Paper ballots laid out at Nevada Democratic caucuses.

President Donald Trump routinely refers to media reports on former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference as a “hoax.” He criticized the New York Times and the Washington Post during a June 25 town hall on Fox News with Sean Hannity, saying: “They got Pulitzer Prizes on Russia, Russia, Russia, and they were wrong.”

The DHS is seeking a one-year contract with options for two additional years for open source analysis of commercially available public information. The deadline is July 13, with work expected to begin immediately once awarded.

Better Late Than Never

Academic institutions and think tanks are already doing similar monitoring of foreign election interference, so a partnership with the federal government is a positive step, Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford Law professor leading the Stanford-MIT Project on a Healthy Election, said.

“We should have greater sort of collaboration between outside experts and government policymakers, especially the policymakers that care about it,” Persily said. “Part of the problem of foreign interference in the U.S. election is that there’s a lot of policymakers who don’t care about it because of the political polarization surrounding these issues.”

The DHS said it wants the contractor to provide biweekly “snapshots” that analyze influence efforts and trends on foreign entities’ election and non-election manipulation and disinformation. The snapshots then could be shared with “relevant consumers” and sourced in the agency’s own analytic products.

However, the analysis will be marked as the contractor’s own, specifying that while the DHS commissioned the work, it does not necessarily reflect the agency’s views or opinions, the solicitation states.

Outsourcing the work may mean it gets done without the risk of political retribution, Persily said.

“The question is whether the research actually is going to inform government policy or not. The hope is that this is not just going to find its way onto a shelf, but it’ll actually lead to serious government responses in the event that people find problems,” he said.

Public or Private

One obstacle to potential university and nonprofit applicants is that they sometimes have access to information that the social media companies share with researchers, but that isn’t available to the public.

The DHS explicitly says that any data the contractor gathers must from commercially available, public sources and “be reasonably void of personally identifiable information” on individual Americans.

Personal information may be hard for a contractor to avoid, Woolley said.

Facebook requires members to use their real names, even in public groups. Many people are on Twitter in a professional capacity and thus use their real names.

“There’s no way that they can possibly claim that they would avoid identifying people in the United States,” Woolley said.

The contractor would need to monitor online groups where people from the U.S. are members. During the 2016 election, the Russian Internet Research Agency created fake accounts and infiltrated different groups across the American political spectrum to try to affect their votes, Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, testified to a House committee in June.

“This also shows a lack of foresight, and a lack of organization, on the part of DHS and the federal government writ large,” Woolley said. “They should have by now been able to develop some kind of schema for figuring out how they can effectively analyze social media for threats, while still maintaining US citizens’ privacy,” he said.

The DHS didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com

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