The 2020 U.S. Election is upon us. Are we being manipulated? Photo Credit: Element5 Digital
Russia, China, and Iran are interfering in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. Just this past week, intelligence officials warned that Iran and Russia had obtained voter data, and that Iran in particular had targeted voters with threatening emails.[i] While the specifics of interference in our election are still being investigated, we do know this – our adversaries want to create chaos in America. Chaos creates confusion, confusion breeds distrust, and distrust undermines confidence in democracy. Our authoritarian adversaries would like the United States’ standing in the world and our democratic ideals to fall.
What is election interference and what should we be worried about?
There are three broad strategies that foreign adversaries can use to interfere in our elections – (1) attacking election infrastructure, (2) hacking campaigns and weaponizing stolen information, and (3) spreading disinformation and misinformation on social media. It is difficult to attack election infrastructure, partially because the United States’ election hardware is dispersed amongst the states and their many precincts. Post-election auditing is a further check against vote tallies that have been falsified.[ii] In addition, since concerns were raised following the 2016 election, U.S. intelligence officials and cybersecurity experts have taken additional concrete steps to safeguard the 2020 election, such as installing sensors on state election computer networks.[iii] In other words, it is unlikely that foreign adversaries will successfully attack our election infrastructure and physically alter the vote.
In 2016, Russia interfered primarily through the latter two strategies. It hacked computers of employees working on Hillary Clinton’s campaign and released the stolen documents and it carried out a social media disinformation campaign that favored Donald Trump.[iv] Russia succeeded at creating confusion among Americans, even over whether interference occurred. Today, about half of Trump supporters believe that Russian interference existed in 2016, compared to about 90% of Biden supporters.[v] The United States’ highly polarized electorate provides the perfect breeding ground for conspiracy theories or disinformation to spread and individual computer systems remain vulnerable to hacking. As such, the two areas Americans need to be the most worried about in the 2020 election are the weaponization of hacked information and social media disinformation campaigns.
Why Would Russia Do This Again?
Russia’s primary goal is to weaken the United States’ global role. As a self-interested, authoritarian regime, Russia sees a powerful and democratic United States as a threat to its very existence. It is in Russia’s interest to both undermine Americans’ faith in liberal institutions (including elections) and promote the candidate it believes will best help its policy goals (Donald Trump). To make this happen, Russia is using internet trolls and other proxies to spread disinformation designed to undermine confidence in the United States’ democratic process and denigrate Joe Biden.[vi] This includes amplifying concerns about mail-in ballot voting to create distrust in the final election result.[vii] The Russians are also using charged social and political issues, like police brutality, to promote an “us versus them” narrative.[viii] Russia can amplify inflammatory political points and manipulate Twitter and Facebook’s algorithms so more people become enraged, further driving apart an already polarized electorate.
Russia’s candidate of choice is not heavily disputed; U.S. intelligence agencies have moderate confidence that Russia is interfering on behalf of Donald Trump against Joe Biden.[ix] Russian President Vladimir Putin views Biden as the so-called “anti-Russia ‘establishment.’”[x] As Barack Obama’s Vice President, Joe Biden is linked to the Obama administration’s criticism of Russia and Putin. Russia sees Biden as potentially reinvigorating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance that it views as threatening. And Biden has been more critical of Russia’s election interference efforts, calling Russia an “opponent” of the United States.[xi] This is in stark contrast to Trump, who has often questioned whether Russia even interfered in 2016 (playing right into Russia’s conspiracy-laden playbook), and famously sided with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies’ assessment.[xii] Putin also views Trump as the leader to weaken the United States internationally by sowing division and discord domestically.
Where Does China Stand?
China’s intentions are more complicated to understand than Russia’s. China is expanding its election influence efforts to shape the policy environment in the United States, trying to stack the cards so Americans favor pro-China policies. Less is publicly known about China’s influence efforts, but it is believed that China will not primarily conduct direct information operations, instead focusing on long-term strategic operations to influence the policy environment.[xiii] This includes deflecting and countering criticism of China’s policies on social media and pressuring unfriendly political figures.[xiv]
So which candidate would China favor? The reviews are mixed, but currently, the Director of the United States National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) William Evanina believes that China opposes Trump’s reelection.[xv] China views Trump as “unpredictable” and “mercurial,” and is angered by the current trade war.[xvi] Furthermore, China has been critical of the Trump administration’s Covid-19 response, statements on the South China Sea, and actions against TikTok.[xvii] That being said, a Biden administration would be tough on China’s human rights abuses and minority mistreatment. Because both candidates pose problems, China will likely focus on dividing a polarized electorate, playing all sides of the issues, rather than promoting a singular candidate. Like Russia, China benefits from chaos and distrust in the United States’ democratic election system.
What Does Iran Have to Gain?
Iran is still actively engaging in election interference efforts, even though it is a smaller player than Russia or China. Iran is interfering in the election to benefit the candidate it believes is most likely to remove sanctions against its regime. Moreover, Iran wishes to undermine U.S. democratic institutions and divide the country. So far, intelligence officials have reported that Iran has spread disinformation and anti-U.S. content on social media.[xviii] Iran is also likely behind threatening emails sent to Democratically-registered voters in battleground states, emails that told Democrats to vote for Trump “or else.”[xix] Cybersecurity experts are still in the process of investigating these emails, but it is clear that they were meant to intimidate voters and undermine confidence in the election.[xx]
Iran’s preference for a candidate appears to be Biden, though intelligence officials seem to have conflicting opinions.[xxi] The Iranian regime has been angered by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, sanctions regime, assassination of General Soleimani, and implicit support for regime change. Biden is seen as a president who might reinstate the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and has at least advocated for Iran to have a “path to diplomacy.”[xxii] However, the recent threatening emails to Democratic voters seem to indicate that Iran is interfering in a similar fashion to China – playing both sides and trying to sow distrust and discord. Regardless of candidate preference, it is clear that Iran is trying to disrupt the election and would benefit from a polarized and dysfunctional American electorate.
Why Should Americans Care and Where Do We Go From Here?
Americans should worry about foreign interference in elections and reject its presence. First, interference breeds distrust and undermines confidence in election results. Americans might not vote or even accept the election results as legitimate if they believe that adversaries are influencing voter tallies. Without Americans believing elections to be free and fair, we cease to be a democracy. Second, interference without consequence leads our adversaries to initiate more cyberattacks in the future. Just look at Russia – due to limited consequences for its election interference in 2016, it is expanding its operations in 2020. Third, foreign interference creates further division within the American public, as unwitting people spread foreign-influenced conspiracy theories. Division means gridlock at best and civil unrest at worst, and a society based on lies rather than fact is not one worth upholding.
Fortunately, there are a few steps that the United States can take in order to safeguard our elections: (1) expand mail-in ballot voting, (2) impose consequences on countries who interfere, and (3) at the public level, use a critical eye when consuming the news. According to Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen, mail-in ballot voting is one of the safest forms of voting, due to their “hyperlocal nature.”[xxiii] Mail ballots are also scrutinized closely, as signatures must match those in voters’ registration files, making it very difficult for a foreign adversary to hack. There is no current intelligence that suggests that Russia, China, or Iran is making a coordinated attempt to create fake mail-in ballots in this current election.[xxiv]
Our adversaries will feel emboldened if they face no consequences for their interference. While the Trump administration has primarily politicized Russian election interference, they did take action recently to sanction one surrogate for spreading false claims about Biden. Andriy Derkach, a Pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker, leaked heavily edited audiotapes of Biden, trying to spread claims of corruption.[xxv] The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Derkach, accusing him of waging a “covert influence campaign” to undermine the presidential election.[xxvi] More consequences like Derkach’s case should serve as a deterrent against others who are considering interference.
The last step is perhaps the most critical – Americans must become more careful news consumers. Americans have played into our foreign adversaries’ hand by believing the disinformation. The United States’ current polarized environment has created the perfect breeding ground for foreign interference, as citizens fall into familiar echo chambers and do not fact-check news sources of articles they want to believe. In a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, further interference creates more polarization as citizens believe the conspiracies fed to them by adversaries who want divisiveness. To truly fight the growing polarization, Americans should read a variety of news sources from reputable publications, and become suspicious of outlandish claims on social media.
Russia, China, and Iran may be interfering in the 2020 U.S. Election, but Americans will determine the next President of the United States. We cannot let the chaos undermine our confidence in our democracy.
[i] Ellen Nakashima et al., “U.S. government concludes Iran was behind threatening emails sent to Democrats,” The Washington Post, Oct. 21, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/10/20/proud-boys-emails-florida/.
[ii] William Evanina, “Statement By NCSC Director William Evanina: 100 Days Until Election 2020,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, July 24, 2020, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/item/2135-statement-by-ncsc-director-william-evanina-100-days-until-election-2020.
[iii] Julian Barnes, “Intelligence Officials See No Foreign Effort to Undermine Mail-In Voting,” The New York Times, Aug. 26, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/us/politics/mail-in-voting-foreign-intervention.html.
[v] Eric Tucker and Emily Swanson, “AP-NORC poll: Americans concerned by foreign interference,” AP News, Oct. 2, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/election-2020-chicago-elections-archive-voting-44e78a1906754ba20d2af0f457ffb902.
[vi] William Evanina, “100 Days Until Election 2020.”
[vii] Jen Kirby, “Yes, Russia is interfering in the 2020 election,” Vox, Sept. 21, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/9/21/21401149/russia-2020-election-meddling-trump-biden.
[ix] Julian Barnes and David Sanger, “C.I.A. Reasserts Putin Is Likely Directing Election Influence Efforts to Aid Trump,” The New York Times, Sept. 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/22/us/politics/cia-russian-election-interference.html.
[x] “U.S. election 2020: China, Russia and Iran ‘trying to influence’ vote,” BBC, Aug. 8, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2020-53702872.
[xi] “U.S. election 2020: Who do Russia, China and Iran want to win?” BBC, Oct. 4, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/election-us-2020-54293489
[xii] Jeremy Diamond, “Trump sides with Putin over US intelligence,” CNN, July 16, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/07/16/politics/donald-trump-putin-helsinki-summit/index.html.
[xiii] “Analysis: 2020 US Election and Foreign Interference,” NJ Office of Homeland Security, May 15, 2020, https://www.njhomelandsecurity.gov/analysis/2020-us-election-and-foreign-interference.
[xiv] William Evanina, “Statement by NCSC Director William Evanina: Election Threat Update For The American Public,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Aug. 7, 2020, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/item/2139-statement-by-ncsc-director-william-evanina-election-threat-update-for-the-american-public.
[xvi] Adam Goldman et al., “Facebook Takes Down Fake Pages Created in China Aimed at Influencing U.S. Election,” The New York Times, Sept. 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/22/us/politics/facebook-china-election-interference.html.
[xvii] William Evanina, “Election Threat Update.”
[xix] Sam Gringlas, “Voters in Florida and Alaska Receive Emails Warning ‘Vote for Trump or Else!” NPR, Oct. 21, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/10/21/926139270/voters-in-florida-and-alaska-receive-emails-warning-vote-for-trump-or-else.
[xxi] “U.S. election 2020: China, Russia and Iran ‘trying to influence’ vote.”
[xxii] “U.S. election 2020: Who do Russia, China and Iran Want to win?”
[xxiii] Julian Barnes, “Intelligence Officials See No Foreign Effort.”
[xxv] Pranshu Verma and Kenneth P. Vogel, “U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Ukrainian With Ties To Russia, Citing Election Interference,” The New York Times, Sept. 10, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/10/us/politics/sanctions-russia-ukraine-election-interference.html.