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US Midterm Primaries and the War in Ukraine

While the world remains focused on Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine, in the United States, we must not lose sight of the fact that midterm primaries start this month. Many of these races are highly charged intra-party contests – some of which have a candidate who continues to believe that the 2020 election was not legitimate. COVID and late-breaking redistricting changes further complicate these primaries, setting the stage for a confused electorate that could be vulnerable to mis- and disinformation campaigns.

While the Russian war and U.S. primary elections differ markedly, there is much U.S. actors can learn from efforts to fight back against Russian propaganda surrounding the war in Ukraine. These include:

1. Be transparent about potential threats: Across the security community, it has been widely recognized that the U.S. government’s unprecedented move of releasing intelligence about Russia’s disinformation campaign was successful. The federal government and others should consider doing the same for any potential issues they are aware of in the lead-up to the midterms.

2. Call out the potential for disinformation early and what that might be: In addition to being transparent about the threats that Russia posed, the U.S. government and others were very early, vocal, and aggressive in calling out the potential disinformation campaigns before they happened. The United States needs to regularly remind people to be vigilant in what they share and see around the election. This is especially important as Facebook last year said the U.S. is the top target for disinformation and we know that both Russia and China learn and work together to spread it.

3. Cooperate among government, tech, business, and civil society: Instead of pointing fingers at one another about what they thought the other should be doing for the Russian invasion, various entities took whatever actions they could to punish Russia and to protect the Ukrainian people. The government enacted sanctions, the tech companies took actions to reduce the spread of Russian propaganda, businesses pulled out of the country and civil society mobilized to do everything from monitoring and fighting back on disinformation to helping the many Ukrainian refugees fleeing the country. We need to see the same level of cooperation between governments, tech companies and civil society for what is happening here at home. While productive debate should be encouraged, it is imperative that all actors do their part rather than expecting another entity to protect the integrity of our elections.

4. Recognize and appreciate nuance: In the beginning days of the invasion, things on the ground were evolving rapidly. Tech companies were trying to hold Russia accountable for misinformation while staying online to ensure people could get news that was not controlled by the Russian government. Social media companies’ community standards don’t allow calls for violence but had to rethink such policies to allow people to talk about fighting back against the Russian army. At home, it is important to remember that sanctions and other actions did not happen all at once but kept ratcheting up as needed. While it is understandable to want to know all the rules ahead of Election Day, that might not be possible depending on what unfolds on the ground. Be prepared for companies and governments to have to make nuanced calls, new policies, or exceptions to their standards depending on what happens.

5. Fight back with counter content. Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy has been heralded for utilizing the media – online and offline – to make his case to the world for help. He has prioritized making videos, talking to government officials, and conducting interviews so people see and understand what is happening on the ground. The U.S. must do the same. To do this well we can’t put the responsibility on just one or two organizations. Rather we need many different organizations and people from government officials, election workers, influencers, the media, and others, to do what they can to push out counter information when disinformation campaigns are discovered. At the same time, we also must be diligent about identifying potential disinformation also spreading masked as a counter information campaign.

6. Plan for contingencies. Planning can help ensure election officials have responses ready as events on the ground unfold quickly. We already have some insight into issues that may arise in the midterms, including candidates not accepting the results, the incitement or promotion of violence, and the spread of disinformation about the electoral process. Many election officials are already putting in plans to address these issues but more thought now about how they might handle those types of situations will be time well spent.

Primaries start this month, and we should start now to educate people on what to be aware of and how to spot mis and disinformation. All who communicate with voters should start today to implement some of these lessons from the fight against disinformation in Ukraine to protect the integrity of elections here at home.

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