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Former Election Security Official Says It Will Take 'Years' To Undo Disinformation

Matthew Masterson, then a senior cybersecurity adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing in 2019. He left his post on Friday. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Matthew Masterson, then a senior cybersecurity adviser at the Department of Homeland Security, testifies before a House Judiciary Committee hearing in 2019. He left his post on Friday. (Susan Walsh/AP)

One of the top federal officials responsible for securing the nation's elections is speaking out days after leaving his job with the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.

Matthew Masterson was a senior cybersecurity adviser at CISA, primarily responsible for elections, and his departure comes amid persistent, but baseless, claims that the 2020 elections were riddled with fraud. Many of those have come from President Trump, who last month fired Masterson's former boss, Christopher Krebs, after Krebs joined others in calling the 2020 election the "most secure in American history." Trump's allegations have been widely disputed by election experts and numerous courts, where his campaign has tried unsuccessfully to overturn the election results.

In his first interview since leaving his job, Masterson told NPR that the biggest challenge for the nation now is restoring public faith in the voting process. Recent polls have shown that a large segment of the electorate, including a majority of Republicans, does not trust that this year's results were legitimate.

Masterson believes, on the contrary, that the 2020 vote was "as smooth a presidential election as I've ever seen." He noted recent improvements in election security and transparency, including expanded use of paper ballots and audits, as well as streaming live video of vote counts.

"Yet we're still beating back disinformation and claims of technical manipulation that just simply aren't true," he said. "So we've got to continue to explore how to offer voters more and more evidence, in a transparent fashion, to reassure them that their vote was counted as cast."

Figuring out how to do that will be part of Masterson's new job at the Stanford Internet Observatory, which has been trying to counter the destructive impact of disinformation on the Internet. He's set to begin work there next month.

Masterson, a former Ohio election official and Republican appointee to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, is highly regarded by election officials of both parties. When he assumed his job at CISA in 2018, many state and local election officials were suspicious of DHS and fearful the federal government would try to usurp control of elections. That relationship has improved tremendously since then, and Masterson has received much of the credit.

Still, it's unclear how he and others will be able to combat what has been an unprecedented wave of disinformation this year and an increase in attacks — including death threats — against election officials. "The damage being done by these disgusting, vile threats is real and I fear long-lasting," Masterson told NPR.

Here's an excerpt of his interview, edited for length and clarity:

One of CISA's main goals is to fight election disinformation, but it became clear this year that one of the biggest sources of disinformation was the president and his allies. How did that affect what you were able to do?

Our goal at CISA was largely pre-bunking or responding to false claims. So, for instance, we created and deployed a rumor control site in response to the Iranian activity that we saw before the election. We saw Iranian actors deploying emails to try to undermine Americans' confidence in the election. And we wanted to have a site that offered tangible facts around the security of the elections process. That was the intent.

But as more and more disinformation spread, regardless of source, that rumor control site became the linchpin of our effort to provide facts about the process — how election officials audit the vote, how they secure the machines, how ballots are accounted for and counted — and tying voters back to trusted sources of information, state and local officials, so they have the information they need.

But how did the fact that the president was a source of a lot of that disinformation limit your ability to succeed?

I think measuring our success is difficult, but nothing the president or other domestic actors were saying limited our ability to respond. We didn't back off of our mission. We didn't shy away from our need to share facts with voters and push them to the correct sources of information, regardless of what the source of the disinfo was.

The effectiveness of that, I think, is a fair question and something that all of us need to look at moving forward. Again, that goes to the real heart of this question around how do we respond to disinfo and how do we build resilience as a society to it, to have the ability to say, "I don't have to rely on a post on Facebook or a tweet. I can turn to other sources of information to get the facts that I need."

Polls now show that a large share of the American public is not confident that the voting system was fair and accurate. How can you address that?

That's exactly the right question in this time period. If you dig into those numbers, some of it's consistent with what we see after many elections, where voters trust their local election official, for instance, but don't trust the other states or the other processes. And typically the party that lost has less trust. But certainly in this case, the impact has been immense.

I think we have to continue to push the facts out there. For example, the state of Georgia hand-counted every one of [its] ballots to assure the correct result. People need to understand that. Ninety-plus percent of votes are on paper. The accuracy is there. We had observers. How many elections offices did we see throughout this election livestreaming their counts to offer that level of transparency?

But many people don't appear to accept such evidence as true.

Yeah, it's difficult to listen to and see that, even where evidence is being presented, that evidence is being questioned or rejected. The response has to be the ongoing drumbeat of facts. Just because you've presented them once doesn't mean you shouldn't go out over and over and over again.

You also need to simplify the message. The elections process is complicated, so saying, "We have paper ballots. We looked at the paper ballots. The result was accurate," over and over again. And then long term, it's offering Americans the opportunity to see exactly how the process works, offering that level of transparency, auditability and security, so whatever confidence they've lost, we can begin to build it back over time. This is going to take a number of years.

What other concerns do you have about the 2020 election?

The environment in which election officials are now in, where they're receiving death threats for simply doing their job, where they're being targeted, is disgusting and vile but, on top of that, not sustainable.

I worry a lot about our ability to retain election officials. A lot of these folks are considering retirement. And so whatever we can do moving forward to embrace these officials, to support them, whether that means monetarily, or more services from CISA, or just standing with them and saying, "You did a really good job in the midst of a pandemic to serve your voters in what was a high turnout election. And you deserve to be saluted for that instead of threatened."

It angers me to no end because they deserve better than this. Instead, they're having to beat back insane conspiracy theories. It's wrong and incredibly detrimental to our election process.

Copyright NPR 2021.

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