'Russian Bots, Propaganda, and You': Texas Democrats learn how to stay safe online

The Russians are coming.

Well, at least their bots, those social media accounts linked to that country.

"Russians not only interfered in 2016 election but there’s an active ongoing intelligence war against the United States right now," Josh Berthume, managing director of Rogue Metrics, a political and digital risk consultancy, told a standing-room only crowd at the Texas Democrats' state convention Saturday.

"And it's only going to get worse."

Berthume, who spoke about "Russian Bots, Propaganda, and You: A Post-Apocalyptic Guide to Digital Risk Mitigation" during one of the convention's breakout sessions, told the crowd he was afraid no one would show up for his session.

But delegates turned out — filling the seats, sitting on the floor, lining the walls.

They showed up, many said, because they are concerned.

"I worry about them hacking election machines," said Theresa Otto, a delegate from Amarillo. "I'm also worried about the propaganda they put out."

Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election has dominated congressional hearings, talk shows and Facebook posts on and off for more than a year.

Top cyber officials said this year that Russia remains determined to disrupt U.S. elections and more than a dozen Russians have been indicted on charges of interfering with the 2016 presidential election.

Earlier this year, nearly 50 suspicious emails — including two dozen with ties to Russia — were even sent to the Texas Democratic Party, unsuccessfully trying to register for political gatherings that could have led the senders to the state convention that wrapped up Saturday at the Fort Worth Convention Center.

"We have to do better at talking about this," Berthume said. "You have to interact with your environment differently."

Protect yourself

Berthume focused on political campaigns and what candidates, staffers and volunteers can do to make their online efforts as safe as possible.

Russia and Dems 02
Josh Berthume, managing director of Rogue Metrics, speaks during a training session at the Texas Democratic Convention on Saturday at the Fort Worth Convention Center area. Ian McVea Special to the S-T

But he said everyone should take steps to protect themselves online.

He offered three key tips:

"Lock the door:" Berthume recommends using two-factor authentication on all electronic devices. He also suggests people update operation systems, programs and apps and use a password manager as well as a VPN (virtual private network).

"Arm yourself with knowledge:" He said people need to study up and learn how to spot hacking or phishing attempts as well as learn how to evaluate stories to make sure they aren't believing and spreading propaganda.

"Build your audience the right way:" Communicate often, budget funding for digital communications, counter propaganda with the truth and turn to friends and supporters for help when there's an attack.

By following these steps, "you eliminate 88 percent of the exposure," Berthume said. "This is about mitigating risk.

"You can't eliminate it."

Russia-Texas ties

The issue of Russia — in some shape or form — came up at both the Republican and Democratic state conventions this month.

"I'll tell you this," Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said during the GOP state convention last week in San Antonio. "You had more to do with the outcome of our last presidential election than did Russia."

He also joked about Vladimir Putin.

"If Texas was its own country," Abbott said, when he was interrupted by large cheers. "Let me rephrase that. If Texas was its own country again, we'd have the 10th largest economy in the entire world.

"The Texas economy alone is larger than Russia's," he said with a grin. "And that makes me more powerful than Putin."

Berthume, meanwhile, talked about fake social media accounts — some tied to Russia — that tend to spread false or controversial reports, bombarding people across the world with information.

The concern is that there will be more Russian interference in this year's election and that some campaigns and candidates in the United States may follow Russia's lead to share inaccurate information.

"If Russian agents had a more clear agenda, ... that would be easier to fight," he said "But their main goal is chaos."

Just know that this is only the beginning, Berthume warned.

"The whole thing is dangerous now," he said. "These conditions are likely to be worse in 2020."

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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