West Virginia Secretary of State Warner warns about election interference

CHARLESTON — With Russian election interference a big part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report released Thursday, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner wants the public to know the signs of misinformation.

The Secretary of State’s Office released a PowerPoint presentation Wednesday on how Russian entities used social media to interfere with the 2016 presidential elections. Warner is taking this presentation around the state to groups and schools to educate the public to be cautious about the information they share on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

“I am hopeful that our government, community and school leaders will take this presentation and share it with their members and students,” Warner said. “The best way to defend against these attacks on our society is to learn the bad actors’ tactics and recognize attempts to undermine our democracy. This presentation is a simple first-step towards building that defense.”

During a press conference Thursday morning, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr said no U.S. citizen assisted Russia in its election misinformation campaign. According to volume I of the Mueller Report released Thursday, the “investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

“As the Special Counsel’s report makes clear, the Russian government sought to interfere in our election,” Barr said. “But thanks to the special counsel’s thorough investigation, we now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign — or the knowing assistance of any other Americans for that matter. That is something that all Americans can and should be grateful to have confirmed.”

According to the report, the Internet Research Agency, a company with close ties to Russian intelligence, used social media to spread misinformation about President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential race. The goal was to “sow discord” by stoking biases and using political differences to exploit the public and to shake confidence in the election process.

“The Russian interference was not only directed at election systems, it was directed at attacking our voters’ minds,” Warner said. “What these foreign actors have done is use America’s strengths, such as freedom of speech, religion, press and assembly, against us.”

Warner points to several examples of Russian use of social media to stoke tensions. These include creating Facebook events for two competing events, such as promoting a pro-Trump and anti-Trump rally in New York City on Nov. 12, 2016, and a pro-Islam and anti-Islam rally in Houston, Texas, in May 2016.

“They’ve tried to turn us against one another along social fissures such as religion, race, ethnicity, citizenship, political affiliation, sexual orientation and socio-economic status,” Warner said. “There are countless instances and indisputable evidence that they’re trying to incite radical positions and extremism in America.”

Warner focuses on high school students to stay vigilant due to their prolific use of social media, but his message is for everyone. Warner cautions social media users to vet the items they share on social media.

He also urges people to protect their personal data by frequently changing passwords, using two-factor authentication and reporting any suspected hack or suspicious activities.

The Mueller Report also details efforts by Russian intelligence services to hack into email servers of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. Charges have been filed against several Russian nationals and military officers for their role in interfering in U.S. elections.

“After nearly two years of investigation, thousands of subpoenas, and hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the special counsel confirmed that the Russian government sponsored efforts to illegally interfere with the 2016 presidential election, but did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those schemes,” Barr said.

One of the things Warner wants to make absolutely clear is that the 2016 Russian election interference did not change one vote.

“It has never been verified where any foreign entity has ever hacked any state or local elections system in the United States to successfully change a single vote. Not one,” Warner said.

During the 2016 campaign, 21 states voter registration systems were targeted, though no evidence exists that voter rolls were changed. West Virginia was not one of the 21 states. No electronic voting machine is connected to the internet, requiring a potential hacker to have to hack into one of several machines at one of the 1,700 precincts across the state. Counties also use machines with voter-verified paper trails along with machine audits.

Warner has spent the last year working with the Defending Digital Democracy project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is a founding member of the national Government Coordinating Council on Elections Infrastructure.

To view the presentation, visit wvsos.gov/elections and click on “Foreign Influence in U.S. Elections.”