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State, Counties Tackled Bad Jokes, Cybersquatting to Protect Election

California’s election cybersecurity approach shut down notable problems. But public records show that its seemingly scattershot approach also ensnared some people who say they were joking.

This report, by Freddy Brewster and Katie Licari, is excerpted from CalMatters.

A fake, partisan website mirroring the Placer County election site. Inaccurate online claims that California was closing in-person voting. Multiple false claims that ballots were thrown away. Those are among the more serious efforts to undermine California’s election that the state worked to shut down, according to public records obtained by CalMatters from the Secretary of State’s Office of Election Cybersecurity

Records show the office also dealt with posts written by Californians who said they were simply trying to be funny. Vanessa Robinson, a fifth-grade teacher, said she was joking when she posted a laughing emoji and wrote that white millennials should “voter suppress and gerrymander” their conservative-leaning parents. The Office of Election Cybersecurity worked with Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, to take down the post. 

The Office of Election Cybersecurity partnered with private- and public-sector organizations to monitor, track and remove social media posts it deemed to be misinformation. A copy of its Misinformation Tracker, obtained through the state’s public records act, shows successes. But records also reflect a seemingly scattershot approach to problems that ensnared some people who say they never were contacted about posts the state deemed to be problematic. 

The public records included correspondence between the Office of Election Cybersecurity and Facebook. CalMatters also asked for training materials used by the Office of Election Cybersecurity on how to spot and define misinformation, but was told no such materials exist.

Misinformation Tracker documents include screenshots or descriptions of social media posts that were deemed misinformation; which platform the posts were placed on; and a color-coded tracking system that labeled the posts as removed, flagged or no action taken by the social media companies. The review found that every request for removal sent to Facebook was granted. Of 23 requests sent to Twitter, 15 were removed, one received a warning message, and no action was taken on seven. A Twitter spokesperson pointed to the company’s decision in the run-up to the 2020 election to apply warnings to misleading or inaccurate tweets.

The state’s scrutiny came during an election period in which 54 out of California’s 58 county registrars surveyed by CalMatters said misinformation at the local level was a major cause of concern. Registrars said they had to deal with misinformation stemming from the White House, Internet conspiracies, allegations of dogs voting in the election and even unofficial ballot boxes. 

A number of posts listed in the Misinformation Tracker wrongly claimed in-person voting had been shut down across the state. Two deleted tweets highlighted a false claim from Sonoma County that thousands of mail-in ballots had been tossed in a dumpster. 

In Placer County, County Clerk/Recorder/Registrar of Voters Ryan Ronco realized he faced a serious problem when he was alerted to a website mimicking the appearance of the official county elections website, down to the same color scheme, identical photos and an official looking seal. Local officials asked for help from the Office of Election Cybersecurity and the federal Department of Homeland Security. 

The Office of Election Cybersecurity emailed Facebook to alert it to the website and described it as cybersquatting, which is when a website is established to mimic another. The cybersquatting website was advertising on Facebook to promote itself, and the state wanted Facebook to take action.

“It looked so close and mirrored a lot of the colors and style (of the official Placer County Elections website), and it was done intentionally,” Ronco said. 

Aaron F. Park, president of the Placer County Good Government PAC, set up the site. The PAC bought ads on Facebook, which eventually removed three of the ads. Yet they received between 12,000 and 19,000 impressions before they were removed, according to Facebook’s Ad LibraryCampaign finance documents show that the Placer County Good Government PAC paid Facebook $4,546 for ads this election cycle, but Facebook’s Ad Library shows at most a $1,300 charge for ads.

One ad, which received the bulk of the impressions and was designed to be indistinguishable from the county’s official site, read: “Local Government Matters! They make decisions that affect you right where you live! Support law enforcement, security, schools and business. Click to see our picks for your community!”  

Placer County served Park with a cease-and-desist letter, which Park says he ignored. Yet at some point, language was added to the site to indicate it was not an official county website. In an interview, Park insisted, “We followed all applicable campaign finance laws to the letter, including using a professional treasurer to ensure compliance with the law.”

He blamed “organized complaint drills” by people on social media to have his site removed “because they did not like us campaigning against the flawed candidates they supported.”

Ronco sees it differently. He said voters need to know they can easily access reliable sources. 

“It’s important for voters to know they’re going to trusted sources to get their information,” Ronco said. “When they feel like they have been duped, then obviously that is going to erode confidence.” 

Despite the efforts of the Office of Election Cybersecurity and Placer County officials, the deceptive site and its Facebook page still were live today and were allowed to continue advertising on Facebook throughout the election cycle.

The rest of this report is available here.

CalMatters is a nonpartisan, nonprofit journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.