A bot farm in Bangladesh tried to interfere in Utah’s 2018 elections

Posted at 2:06 PM, Mar 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-27 20:53:00-04

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah elections officials have met with Facebook to find out more about an effort to plant misinformation in the 2018 midterms.

Utah Elections Director Justin Lee told FOX 13 on Wednesday that Facebook found a misinformation campaign originating from a bot farm in Bangladesh. It didn't target a specific campaign, he said, but sought to disrupt the general midterm election in Utah.

"You’ll see things like go to your poll location, but they’ll have the date wrong. Mail your ballot, but the date will be wrong," Lee said. "Different things like that. That really throws off the process more so than see bad information about a candidate."

A Facebook spokesman told FOX 13 on Wednesday night the effort was not unique to Utah, but was a spamming effort spread across 75 sites in the United States. The social media giant discovered it and shut it down.

"This is an example of our detection systems working the way they should. We noticed foreign activity from financial spammers and within the span of an hour identified this and took action. It’s part of our ongoing efforts to reduce misinformation and protect elections," the spokesman said.

The 2018 elections were particularly high-profile for Utah: former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was on the ballot; there was a contested race between then-Congresswoman Mia Love and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams; and medical marijuana, Medicaid expansion and independent redistricting were before voters as ballot initiatives.

Lee said the state elections office maintains regular contact with social media giants like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep up to date on misinformation campaigns and attempts to influence elections. Utah has seen an increase in efforts to breach its computer systems, as well as disinformation campaigns from foreign places. Last year, Lt. Governor Spencer Cox disclosed that when Mitt Romney entered the race for U.S. Senate, efforts were increased to prevent hacking of the state's databases.

"The attacks on state systems, the closer we get to elections, do rise exponentially. We’re almost over a billion attacks a day on state systems," Lee said.

Cybersecurity is becoming an increasing focus as the state becomes a center for technology. On Wednesday, the Salt Lake Chamber hosted a cybersecurity conference where businesses were urged to do more to guard against hacking, data breaches and phishing attempts.

"There’s a lot of people out there that just don’t have a clue what they’re doing, how to go about it or even where to start," said Jordan Hoskins, a co-chair of the chamber's cybersecurity leadership council.

The chamber published a best practices guide that can be found here.