Cybersecurity, Emerging Issues in Security

How Political Campaign Hacking Undermines Democracy

Editor’s note: The views and opinions in the following article are the author’s and may not necessarily reflect those of Total Security Advisor.

In a world that is already questioning the integrity of news, truth, and reality, the prevalence of cyberattacks and misinformation campaigns seems to be the final nail in the information coffin. From the 2016 U.S. Democratic Party cyberattack when the DNC’s private emails were stolen and released on WikiLeaks, to the more recent misinformation campaigns spearheaded by Russia upon their invasion of Ukraine, these new iterations of political weaponry have landed in our laps as a threat to our democracy.

For politicians, campaign hacking can involve the stealing of sensitive information before using it against candidates to spread misleading (or outright false) information, as well as utilizing either or both tactics to manipulate the outcome of elections—and the frequency of these attacks is on the rise. 

For instance, the total number of ransomware attack attempts (i.e., cyberattacks which involve the hijacking of sensitive information or key platforms which hackers then hold for ransom) in June 2021 stands at 78.4 million, higher than three out of four quarters in 2020. A report by SonicWall finds, “With 304.7 million attempts, the first half of 2021 had more ransomware than all of 2020—but the second half would prove even worse, reaching 318.6 million.”

Cyberattacks, campaign hacking, and the misinformation campaigns that spread from both, are not only robbing us of the truth; they’re also expensive. The global cost of cyberattacks is expected to grow by 15% per year and is expected to reach over $10 trillion. Part of this cost is ransomware attacks, which now cost businesses in the United States $20 billion per year. The average cost of a data breach in the country is $3.8 million.

Political Campaign Hacking and What It Can Look Like

Political campaign hacking can come in many shapes and sizes. Perhaps the most famous case in recent memory is when then-President Trump insisted that the 2020 election was stolen. These claims prompted a partisan audit in Maricopa County, Ariz., as well as efforts to conduct similar audits across many battleground states.

Political campaign hacking and cyberattacks can be a valuable tool for the opposition during campaign season. Although most campaign hacking initiatives tend to involve little more than shelling out misleading or inaccurate information against the opposition, cybersecurity attacks can happen, too, and should be investigated to see if there is any proof of malicious actors.

For instance, Junaid Ahmed, an Illinois Democrat running for the state’s 8th Congressional District, recently took to Twitter stating that his senior staff were the victims of a politically fueled cyberattack meant to undermine his campaign. While these types of attacks are rarer than other forms of campaign hacking like misinformation campaigns, they can ultimately be much more damaging in the long run for candidates, especially if they aren’t investigated or addressed properly—and promptly.

Why Are Cyberattacks Especially Harmful in an Age of Significant Distrust of Government?

Besides electrical blackouts, failure of military equipment, and breaches of national security secrets which can cause the theft of valuable and sensitive data like medical records, cyberattacks can also disrupt phone and computer networks, or paralyze systems, making data unavailable. Cyberattacks—and the spread of misinformation that can result from them—rob people of the truth.

People are already looking for a conspiracy. Giving theorists any basis to have a sound argument can be dangerous grounds.

We have far more questions than answers in this age of misinformation and questionable truths. From QAnon to conspiracy theories about 9/11, the Kennedy assassination, and even UFO theorists, our society has gone down the rabbit hole searching for facts.

Could Being More Transparent in Politics Ease the Impact of a Security Breach?

Joseph Goebbels, the chief propogandist of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party, famously said, “Repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes the truth.” Even when a politician is impeccably honest and completely transparent, it is still an uphill battle when a misinformation campaign is launched by an unscrupulous opponent. 

Americans have questions. If politicians aren’t willing to give answers, that leaves room for people to create their own. That can be done in bad faith, and the information being spread can be pistons in our democracy. The more people know, the less room for misinterpretation.

Should Politicians Keep Private Whether They’ve Been Hacked?

As we approach the 2022 campaign season, campaign hacking and malicious cyberattacks are expected to be on the rise. The best advice for any campaign manager or politician who has been hacked is to keep it private unless it will affect your election.

You don’t want to be viewed as a conspiracy theorist, nor do you want to ride the slippery slope of attributing an election loss to a hack. Mentions of hacks in the realm of politics often, subsequently, lead to claims of “fraud,” which can lead to the further spread of misleading language or information. You don’t want to get into the weeds unless you have hard, sound evidence.

What Can American Voters Do?

Disinformation is not only polluting our political landscape; it has reached every corner of our lives. Every generation faces a challenge, and in the 21st century, finding the truth is at the top of the list.

Here are some strategies as we learn to be an educated, well-informed public:

Stay vigilant. From posts on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram to the televised news, we must question what we hear and read. Learn to vet your information and ask questions.

Read news from honest sources. Finding “honest sources” may be a challenge, as “fake news” has become a tagline used to define the news itself.

Always do your research. If you hear disturbing news about a candidate and they are local, check with the candidate. Investigate the news and see if there is any credible proof behind it.

Challenge your opinions. Reach out and listen to the “other side,” whatever that side may be, and listen with an open mind. It’s time that we seek to understand, even if we’re not in agreement.

Diversify your news diet. If you’re a Fox News watcher, flip to MSNBC, or vice versa. If you find you watch one channel or read one publication only, vary your news sources. When you see discrepancies, ask questions.

As the election season approaches, we will be inundated with news and confusion if this trend continues. The days of sitting in front of the evening news and watching the trusted Walter Cronkite are long gone. Journalism as we know it, and the news industry in general, is facing an identity crisis. It’s up to the American public to be vigilant, proactive, and take responsibility for finding the truth.

Amani Wells-Onyioha is a political expert, civil rights advocate, and thought leader. Working as Sole Strategies’ operations director, she is the engine behind progressive candidates who are seeking to uplift underrepresented communities and change America’s political system.