Commentary, Opinion

How you can help protect democracy in the age of disinformation?

By Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos

Over the past few weeks, I have given considerable thought to the message I want to convey to Vermonters on cybersecurity.

The world of cybersecurity has changed significantly for election officials over the last five years. Turn back to September 2017, when Dept. of Homeland Security officials confirmed what we had suspected for months: Russian cyber actors had attacked our elections in an attempt to unduly influence the outcome.

This reality-changing announcement kicked off a yearslong public education campaign that continues today about the many layers of robust cybersecurity we have in place protecting elections. From the “gold standard” voter-marked paper ballot we use in Vermont, to post-election audits, strict chain of custody procedures, routine penetration testing, threat prevention, detection and mitigation, multifactor authentication, and state and federal partnerships, my goal has always been to be transparent and give Vermont voters the information they need to feel confident in the security and integrity of our elections.

This won’t be the last time you’ll hear me say the phrase “cybersecurity is a race without a finish line.”

This threat landscape is ever-evolving, but rather than talk about the protections we have in place for election systems, I want to discuss a threat that is as dangerous, if not more, to fair elections. It just so happens it is one we can all play a role in defeating. Election disinformation threatens to rip our country in two if we do not join together to do something.

Red or blue, it doesn’t matter: How can we expect to have civil conversations when, swirling around us everywhere we turn, we see conspiracy theories, offensive memes, and outright lies designed to warp our own perceptions of the democratic process until we turn on each other?

It has been almost a year since the 2020 general election, and the results were carefully and deliberately certified by Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan election officials across the country, but it doesn’t feel that way when I go online. Instead, I see the same old disproven conspiracy theories, designed to appeal to those who didn’t like the outcome and spread in an effort to weaken our confidence in American democracy.

At best, bad actors push false rhetoric that leaves us badly informed. At worst, disinformation and deliberately misleading mal-information leads to abusive and threatening behaviors, including death threats and physical violence.

We are teetering on a knife edge, and if we are to find our way off, it needs to be together. With Cybersecurity Awareness Month on the mind, I hope you will remember to look only to primary, official sources for your information. The talking heads in our news feeds don’t count: It is on all of us to verify the information we hear before promoting it ourselves. If you’re skeptical, or have questions, reach out to those who have answers.

You can call or email my office anytime, and we will gladly answer your questions to the best of our ability.

Disagreeing with each other through civil discourse, based on facts and evidence, is the minimum standard we must consider in order to return to a healthy democracy. Please join me: Be skeptical about what you read online and think before you link!

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