Hackers could sow confusion and mistrust by attacking media targets on Election Day to alter voting results before they’re officially tabulated by state and local authorities.
Senior U.S. officials, current and former lawmakers, and cybersecurity experts expressed their concern about the possibility of a cyberattack against the Associated Press and other media outlets after polls begin closing Nov. 8 and votes are counted up, reported Politico.
American media companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on security upgrades, but websites such as Buzzfeed and Newsweek have been recently targeted by hackers, and some journalists have seen their private information dumped online.
The AP is particularly vulnerable to attack, with more than 5,000 reporters, editors and researchers working all over the country to tabulate results and project winners — which can sometimes influence results in states where polls close later.
That possibility is particularly troublesome in a year in which Donald Trump is already claiming his looming electoral loss is the result of rampant voter fraud — and many of his supporters believe him.
U.S. intelligence officials believe Russian agents are attempting to influence the presidential election, and much of the evidence suggests they’re helping Trump — who has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin and invited foreign hackers to target his Democratic rival.
“To the degree that foreign hackers could prevent the dissemination of good information around the election, that can be a problem,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Tampered vote tallies, even if they were later corrected by official tabulations, could undermine the integrity of the electoral process and invalidate the results in many voters’ minds.
Here’s how that could work.
Results coming into the AP in real time could be intercepted by hackers and substituted with phony totals, making it appear as if one candidate — let’s say Trump, for this example — were winning by a wide margin right out of the gate.
But then — as state and local election officials catch up with the exit polling, demographic analysis and absentee ballots the AP uses to tabulate its early results — those numbers would shift away from those early, unofficial results.
That could reinforce Trump’s unfounded claims and even spark new ones — much the same way “false flag” conspiracy theories are often based on erroneous information reported in the chaotic first moments of mass shootings and other breaking news events.
While federal and state officials are confident that a successful hack on a major news outlet would not affect the final results — which usually take weeks to certify — such a scenario would bolster the fears many voters have, and which are stoked by the GOP nominee, about election rigging.
The Politico report focuses on the very real possibility that news organizations could embarrass themselves with “a modern-day version of the famous ‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ headline” — Trump’s recent “rigged election” fear-mongering could trigger something even more troubling.
Anecdotal reports have found Trump supporters around the country threatening violent revolution if Hillary Clinton wins, whether the results are close or not, and memes vowing things like, “Trump 2016: By Ballot or Bullet,” circulate on social media.
Many of those supporters are already primed by right-wing media, such as InfoWars, to question the official narrative of any news event — particularly when some early reporting is later disproven by more careful investigation.
Early and misleading vote totals, at the very least, would send the election’s eventual winner into office with a cloud of illegitimacy hanging over them.
That could drag the psychic trauma of the 2016 presidential election into next year — and possibly beyond.