In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, quotidian American political discourse was taken by storm by a conspiratorial bombshell that was bound to be vindicated. It claimed that President Donald Trump had colluded with Russia to interfere with the election. Three years later, the Mueller report liquidated these allegations.
Today, we are seeing the same charges being hurled by both Democratic and Republican elites. Except it is no longer just Russia that is a purported threat to American democracy. According to U.S. intelligence agencies, this new axis of cyberterror includes China and Iran as well.
According to National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director, William Evanina, these “foreign states will continue to use covert and overt influence measures in their attempts to sway U.S. voters’ preferences and perspectives, shift U.S. policies, increase discord in the United States, and undermine the American people’s confidence in our democratic process.”
In the same statement, Evanina explains that these three countries aren’t necessarily partners in crime. China prefers that Trump “does not win reelection,” due to his unpredictableness and critical statements regarding Hong Kong, TikTok, and the legal status of the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Russia is publically spreading smears against Biden, denigrating him as corrupt and pro-Ukrainian. Tehran, on the other hand, seeks to undermine the world’s oldest democracy and divide the country—mostly by spreading online disinformation.
So far, China has received the most attention for its efforts to influence the election. Through its recent “mask diplomacy,” diplomats have been donating large amounts of equipment to fight the coronavirus, but have expected favors in return, especially with local officials.
Both sides of the aisle have strongly disavowed any interference. Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) warned “the Russians are going to amplify the false messages that the president is putting out about.” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) called on Americans to “prevent outside actors from being able to interfere in our elections.”
Of course, in the context of the global pandemic, anxiety over election security is well-founded. Since April, Trump has spread inaccurate claims about mail-in voting, claiming “tremendous potential for voter fraud” (though an analysis of mail-in ballot finds that only .0025 percent of mail-in ballots are fraudulent). A frenzy of events soon ensued, with the postal service warning 46 states that voters could be disenfranchised due to delayed mail-in ballots and reports of mail sorting machines being disabled.
But more importantly, Russia was irrefutably guilty of meddling in American elections once already. In 2016, Russia hacked the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Campaign Committee, and the Democratic National Committee. By using tactics like sending fake emails to staffers, they were able to install malware on computers and steal tens of thousands of emails.
Moreover, while they did not alter any votes, they stole sensitive information from voter registration systems. This includes partial social security numbers, names, addresses, and drivers’ licenses. In some states, Russia was even in a position to alter or delete voter registration data.
The United States government has taken some measures to prevent such a recurrence. Since 2017, the Department of Homeland Security has provided voluntary assistance to state and local officials and established the Election Task Force and Countering Foreign Influence Task Force.
The Last Mile Project and #Protect2020 Strategic Plan serve to work with local officials in over 8,000 election jurisdictions. Precautions include monitoring databases protected by firewalls, intrusion detection and prevention systems, as well as physical security. The DHS has also worked with private sector corporations running election machinery, academics, and NGOs to support their work.
Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) has lauded the DHS, claiming it has “done a pretty good job of improving the overall security of our election machinery.”
Yet there exist some glaring concerns, such as the use of electronic poll books. These devices are estimated to sign over half of voters into the polls on November 3. And while tampering with them cannot change any individual’s vote, they are susceptible to cyberattacks causing hours-long waits preventing people from voting.
Aside from heightened attention from intelligence agencies, the only Russia-meddling related bill signed into law was the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has not allowed the Senate to vote on election security bills passed by the Democratic House.
But Russia’s largest purported and intended impact on the 2016 wasn’t hacking into electoral machinery. Instead, it was an attempt to sow division by spreading propaganda, reifying the notion that fake news pervades American discourse. “Troll farms” such as the Internet Research Agency developed webs of fake accounts posting divisive content. This included posts on Black Lives Matter and immigration, and staging real-life rallies through Facebook as well.
The three social media giants—Facebook, Twitter, and Google—have spent the past two years as a target of Democrats and Republicans alike. Unforgettable are the videos of technologically inept Congresspeople asking Google CEO Sundar Pichai questions about “some little man sitting behind the curtain” of search results and Facebook if the website is actually “free.”
But on their criticisms of the tech companies, the boomers are split on priorities. Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) charge that “big tech behaves like the only acceptable views are those on the far left,” accusing them of conservative censorship. All the while, Democrats clung onto the narrative that Russian troll posts may have cost Hillary the election.
Misinformation spread through social media continues to be a problem during the pandemic. Facebook is still plagued with divisive posts emulating those of the Internet Research Agency. These divisive accounts have followings of hundreds of thousands—but unlike 2016, some are using new tactics like impersonating candidates, parties, and actual organizations. Many groups are even categorized as nonpolitical and commercial, evading red flags for up to weeks.
In explaining the numerous false posts that remain, Facebook refers to its policy of avoiding limiting “freedom of expression.” Instead, they target accounts that misrepresent groups or individuals. While Twitter has banned all campaign ads last year and deleted thousands of accounts linked to the QAnon conspiracy, Google has stopped using demographic data on users to selectively target them with specific ads. Still, all three sites are plagued with misinformation.
Now, the illicit Russian tactics have also been picked up by not only far-right white supremacists, but partisans as well. Seemingly legitimate Facebook pages in Michigan like “Western News Today” portray themselves as real news outlets and share false racist content. But two other suspicious media outlets—“The Gander” and “Grand Rapids Reporter”—have also been propped up on the site. Respectively, they have ties to Democratic and Republican funding sources. All remain running because no foreign entity is “misrepresenting” themselves.
We must be cautious. Amongst media and political elites, it became a virtual consensus that fake news from Russia has likely helped Trump win the election. But according to researchers like Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist and professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, such a conclusion is misleading.
His data, along with fellow researchers like Princeton political scientist Andrew Guess conclude that fake news constituted two percent of the average person’s news feed. And for those who did receive misinformation, they were “predominantly people who are inclined to believe the conclusions that are being made in this content, not so much swaying them to believe something.”
In other words: confirmation bias.
That doesn’t mean that fringe alt-right posts had no effects. In fact, a 2017 study of over 1.25 million stories published since April 1, 2015 shows the creation of a right-wing media echo-chamber, from which information seeps into mainstream media discourse. Misinformation from Breitbart, would become fodder for other right-wing sources, namely Fox News, the Daily Caller, and the Washington Examiner.
Eventually, false claims became well-established tropes, such as the Hillary emails, distrust of the media, and waves of illegal immigration. Right-wing conspiracies became topics of the mainstream media to cover. But the main driver of media polarization was certainly not troll posts from Russia. These are the results of the profit-driven, clickbait based terrain we reside in.
If anything, Russia’s 2016 operations, as the Brooking Institute explains, “were highly adaptive to the political context in the United States, followed a seemingly well-thought-out strategic plan akin to a marketing or public relations campaign.” In other words, the Internet Research Agency had just injected itself into America’s already downtrodden political arena.
Despite Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s meager reforms, media coverage still resembles that of 2016. Insofar as Trump was continuously lambasted by the media in 2016 for his outlandish sexism and xenophobia, journalists have yet to figure out how to cover him today—is he a tyrant, buffoon, or a voice for millions of dejected Americans? And with jingoists like Tucker Carlson defending the 17-year-old white supremacist shooter in Wisconsin, and QAnon supporters heading to Congress, has the political terrain in the U.S. fundamentally changed?
This time around, Russia, China, and Iran could very well infiltrate our media ecosystem with divisive content, producing doubt in the legitimacy of our “democratic” institutions. Extreme claims will unquestionably recreate the hysteria of 2016, spurring debates on the extent to which foreign meddling yet again affected our elections.
But isn’t it silly to unleash our rage on those who exploited our broken democratic institutions, rather than using that energy to fix the broken institutions in the first place?