Were the 2018 Elections Hacked?

Photo by Getty Images.

Q&A with Eileen Donahoe, the first US ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and currently the executive director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator at FSI’s CDDRL. Written with Aine Tyrrell.

We’ve all heard about how the 2016 US election was compromised by Russian interference. But what about 2018? Were the elections “hacked” this time around? How did tech companies respond to digital threats, and how can we prepare for 2020? To answer these questions and more, we spoke with Eileen Donahoe, an expert on the intersection between the tech world and government.

In your opinion, did the U.S. democratic process work on Tuesday, November 6th 2018?

In broad strokes I would say yes — our system basically worked. And I would add that I think we should all feel relieved that there was no catastrophic attack on our election infrastructure. Before the election, there was considerable concern that such a catastrophic attack might occur. Such an event could easily have created widespread chaos and completely eroded confidence in the integrity of the outcome of the midterm elections.

On the other hand, there were many scattered incidents of hacking so no one should feel at ease about the experience in the midterms. Just in the period between August 1 and election day on November 6, over 160 different state, local, and county election officials reported that their machinery was infiltrated by foreign hackers. In addition, on the disinformation front, a federal indictment just a few weeks before the election showed us that the Russian Internet Research Agency was still trying to undermine the integrity of civic discourse around the U.S. election and sway voters through disinformation campaigns.

This form of disinformation has the potential to wreck havoc on the body politic….Deep fakes are coming and we need to prepare the public.

We should all have a sense of urgency about the need to re-think security for our election infrastructure and processes. The hard part here is that the political leadership in the United States is not yet fully unified behind this idea, but the bottom line is — we got past the midterm election, and it wasn’t the disaster it might have been.

On a positive note, we should feel relieved that there were no reports of deep fake videos being utilized to fabricate stories about politicians and candidates saying or doing things that they did not do. Deep fakes are a new form of synthetic AI-generated disinformation that lets malign actors patch the head of a person onto the body of another. This form of disinformation has the potential to wreck havoc on the body politic. A number of researchers were wagering before the election that deep fake videos of candidates would seriously affect the election outcome. We dodged that threat this time, but deep fakes are coming and we need to prepare the public.

The midterm elections saw the highest voter turnout in decades. Is this a positive sign for American democracy, or was this merely reactionary, proof of polarization in US politics?

I would say the massive turnout was a very positive sign. I would much rather have greater enfranchisement, with people being energized and excited about voting. From my vantage point, with so much noise and disinformation, the bigger risk is that people disengage or turn off. If the prevailing sense in political discourse is that nothing is true, or that candidates can’t be seen as reliable or trustworthy, then citizens will give up and pull out of the democratic process. This is one of the primary goals of foreign information operations: to get people not to care. So while increased voter turnout on both sides of the aisle was, to some extent, a reflection of growing polarization, it’s much better than the alternative.

There were reports that Facebook removed 115 accounts across Instagram and Facebook itself hours before the midterm election. Said account are reputed to have been in French and Russian, and to have had connections with foreign entities. Do you think these accounts impacted voter turnout or voting patterns? Or did this incident impact public confidence in the democratic process?

We know that foreign information operations have been ongoing. The Facebook evidence you just cited is just further proof that these disinformation campaigns are still happening. The basic effect of these info ops is to exacerbate polarization, undermine trust, and erode the quality of civic discourse. This report was not enough to erode overall confidence in the election outcome, so I would argue this was just a drop in the bucket.

Campaigns to manipulate citizens’ views do work. They are slowly eroding the quality of civic engagement and trust in information or candidates.

But while we don’t have direct evidence of causality — in other words, we can’t prove that voters are actually changing their votes based on disinformation — there is no question in my mind that disinformation has a dramatic and negative effect. My general sense is that these campaigns to manipulate citizens’ views do work. They are slowly eroding the quality of civic engagement and trust in information or candidates.

One strange twist here is that, in the days immediately before the election, rather than denying involvement, the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) was publicly claiming that they were manipulating voter opinion. It’s hard to know what they wanted with that admission. Are they trying to show us that they are messing with our election, so we feel manipulated, regardless of actual impact on the vote? Is that, itself, the trick? The level of manipulation here is sometimes hard to fathom.

Hear more from Eileen Donahoe on digital threats to US elections on World Class, a podcast from the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies:

Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies or Stanford University, both of which are nonpartisan institutions.