Four Years Later, How is Russian Interference Different in the 2020 Election?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his proxies are at it again, but the Kremlin’s campaign includes some notably different tactics this time around.

By Michael McFaul and Bronte Kass

As observed in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — and numerous elections around the world since then — the viral spread of misinformation and disinformation can disenfranchise voters, delegitimize results, and erode public confidence in the overall integrity and legitimacy of democratic processes. Sources of misinformation and disinformation can be foreign or domestic. Social media platforms make it easy for foreign actors to interact with domestic disinformation propagators and American voters. Although not only the foreign actor influencing the U.S. election, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his proxies are again engaged, but the Kremlin’s campaign includes some notably different tactics in 2020 compared to 2016.

The U.S. ecosystem has changed as well. Social media companies have developed big teams to detect foreign disinformation and coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB). Having helped to amplify Russian disinformation operations in 2016, U.S. media outlets have become more sophisticated and careful in their reporting. In addition, many non-government organizations are engaged in the fight against disinformation, foreign and domestic. For example, the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) is a non-partisan coalition of four of our country’s leading institutions analyzing misinformation and disinformation in the social media landscape: Stanford Internet Observatory and Program on Democracy and the Internet, Graphika, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, and the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public. Supporting real-time information exchange between the research community, election officials, government agencies, civil society organizations, and social media platforms, EIP seeks to detect and mitigate the impact of content intended to suppress voting, reduce participation, confuse voters, or delegitimize results without evidence. In turn, actionable support, through policy analysis and rapid responses, is provided to officials who are increasing transparency and providing accurate information to the electorate.

Moscow’s Measures

In 2019, Robert Mueller warned during congressional testimony that Russians continue to interfere in U.S. elections “as we sit here” and that “many more countries” have developed campaigns inspired by their model. The Senate Intelligence Committee released a bipartisan report noting, “Russian disinformation efforts may be focused on gathering information and data points in support of an active measures campaign targeted at the 2020 U.S. presidential election.” In a classified report, the CIA observed, “President Vladimir Putin and the senior most Russian officials are aware of and probably directing Russia’s influence operations aimed at denigrating the former U.S. Vice President, supporting the U.S. president and fueling public discord ahead of the U.S. election in November.” Similarly, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified in mid-September that Russian efforts were “very active.”

In an update on election threats, Director William Evanina of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center remarked that Russia is “using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ … For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption — including through publicizing leaked phone calls — to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party. Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.” In September, Derkach was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for being “an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services” and waging “a covert influence campaign centered on cultivating false and unsubstantiated narratives concerning U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election,” including by releasing “edited audio tapes and other unsupported information with the intent to discredit U.S. officials.”

Between misinformation related to COVID-19, coverage of racial justice protests, and increased aggression from extremist groups, Russian operatives have found a highly polarized and chaotic environment in which they can emphasize divisive examples of racism, stoke anger, and impersonate political candidates or groups online. Through a technique of information laundering, websites first “report” divisive propaganda with the hopes that more legitimate outlets will then pick up and circulate the stories. Russia’s Internet Research Agency created the fictitious Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens to spread propaganda, and created an entity called Peace Data to recruit U.S. journalists to write articles critical of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Affiliated accounts have since been suspended or deleted from Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. The Department of Homeland Security warned law enforcement that Russian actors were particularly amplifying fears about absentee voting and other measures taken to protect voters during the pandemic in order to sow discord.

Two Weeks Until Election Day

The good news is that to date, Russia’s intervention in 2020 has been more limited. In the last presidential election, Russia’s multi-pronged campaign of publishing information stolen from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign was most impactful during the summer and fall of 2016. An equivalent operation has not yet occurred. According to U.S. intelligence officials, the Kremlin’s most ambitious project in this election has been the apparent effort to launder false information about Hunter Biden into the U.S. media sphere. Similar to 2016, President Trump and his allies have engaged directly in trying to amplify this conspiracy, including an investigation led by Senate Republicans which the New York Times described in the following headline: “Republican Inquiry Finds No Evidence of Wrongdoing by Biden: The report delivered on Wednesday appeared to be little more than a rehashing of unproven allegations that echoed a Russian disinformation campaign.

Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster remarked that on false claims about the Biden family, Trump himself was “aiding and abetting Putin’s efforts by not being direct about this. This sustained campaign of disruption, disinformation and denial is aided by any leader who doesn’t acknowledge it.” Dozens of former Intelligence Community officials issued a statement noting that the attack “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation” and would be “consistent with Russian objectives… to create political chaos in the United States and to deepen political divisions here but also to undermine the candidacy of former Vice President Biden and thereby help the candidacy of President Trump.”

To date, this Russian-backed smear campaign has produced little effect. Public opinion polls show that American voters have bigger issues on their minds, from the economy and national security to the national response to COVID-19 and healthcare.

But if Russian disinformation efforts have proven less impactful in this election compared to 2016, domestic campaigns have exploded. Many false narratives being cultivated this cycle originate from within the United States, gaining traction through domestic pathways to undermine faith in our democracy. As Reneé DiResta has written, “The conspiracies are coming from inside the house. After 2016, Americans are alert to Russian election interference, but domestic influencers are spreading discord on their own.” Similarly, former Senior Director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council Fiona Hill warned, “The biggest risk to this election is not the Russians, it’s us.”

Malicious Russian actors still have two possible plays left. First, they could seek to disrupt voting on Election Day, by freezing up computers with voter registration lists or disrupting infrastructure used for ballot processing and counting. To succeed, such attacks do not need to have a substantial influence beyond creating the perception of voting irregularities. At a moment when Americans are primed to distrust the electoral results, a small cyber incident could have an inordinate impact. A second, much more likely play is amplification of voter fraud claims. This disinformation operation would occur on Election Day and afterwards, especially if the vote is close. Tragically, this type of operation will have many U.S. allies, including most likely Trump himself if he is losing, but also radical anti-Trump forces if the president is winning.

If either scenario unfolds, Americans must ignore disinformation — foreign or domestic — and demonstrate patience in letting every vote be counted. Over 25 percent of the total 2016 turnout has already voted, as of October 20. Our best defense against Russian meddling in this election is to let the system of counting votes work.

For more analysis, visit the Election Integrity Partnership. To see real-time research, monitoring and analysis about the Stanford Cyber Policy Center’s programs and partnerships, visit FSI’s Free, Fair and Healthy Elections in 2020.

Elections deadlines, dates, and rules are available at Vote.org. To plan your vote in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, visit Plan Your Vote or How to Vote in the 2020 General Election.

*Note: This is the fifth post in Michael McFaul and Bronte Kass’s series “Preserving American Democracy.”

Read the first post, The Imperative of a Free and Fair Presidential Election in November, the second post, Lessons from Primary Elections in August for Election Day in November, the third post, Yes, Voting by Mail Remains Safe, Fair, and Democratic in 2020, and the fourth post, In-Person Voting Requires Safe and Accessible Solutions.

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