“There is no such thing as a former KGB man.” — Vladimir Putin
FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to the House Judiciary Committee last week that Russia’s disinformation campaign to interfere in the 2020 election is underway. This isn’t surprising, given that Russian active measures are about the long game: Ex-KGB officer and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal was never simply to place a Manchurian candidate in the Oval Office, but rather to permanently destabilize the West, damage U.S. credibility, and undermine those very things that make democratic countries special.
Putin aimed for chaos, and Donald Trump was the chaos candidate in 2016. But Putin will continue to attack, namely because his objectives haven’t changed and the United States has not done anything to defend or deter him from this course of action. The only difference this time around is that, after four years of Trump, generating chaos will be even easier to achieve, as Trump and his surrogates have adopted the same playbook. Republicans know they are working in parallel with Russian intelligence, even if they are not working hand in hand. Republicans may insist to themselves there is a difference, but practically speaking, there isn’t. The only way to neutralize this threat is through public awareness of Russia’s tactics and increased civic participation: To that end, read on.
The best way to assess the Russian threat in the future is to assess the data we already have from the past. From our experience in 2016, we know Russian intelligence probed election computer systems in all 50 states. We also know the Kremlin stole emails from the Democratic Party, fed the material to WikiLeaks and others who could disperse it publicly, and then leveraged the information in a massive propaganda and influence campaign.
Russian intelligence ran a further influence campaign using social media, trolls, and bots to amplify the propaganda and to influence individuals to take actions in the United States, including hiring actors to portray Hillary Clinton in a mock jail cell on the back of a pickup truck at rallies. Russians with links to the Kremlin infiltrated conservative groups, such as the National Rifle Association and American evangelical organizations, and made various approaches to the Trump campaign. Russian intelligence also stole Republican Party material which it has yet to weaponize.
This same Kremlin playbook was deployed outside the United States as well – from Britain to France, Spain to Italy, Hungary to Montenegro, and elsewhere. For those who study Russian intelligence modus operandi, the pattern is clear.
As such, we can be confident that the 2020 election cycle will provide the Kremlin opportunities to pursue further subversion, disinformation, and deception. We should expect to see a barrage of disinformation, from fake think tanks, fake media outlets, false social media accounts, false identities, trolls, and bots to launder fringe narratives into the mainstream and hijack the public discourse. Lies will target the Democratic nominee (as the corruption conspiracy about former Vice President Joe Biden shows, this step began long ago), as well as seek to divide the Democratic vote.
While we are more aware of the existence of this manipulation than we were in 2016, it will remain difficult to separate fact from fiction and to critically assess information. Russian disinformation efforts will be hidden amidst the flood of angry partisan wrangling spread organically by Americans. Even Fox News has internally raised a red flag that its own commentators, like Sean Hannity and Joe diGenova, are actively using their platforms to spread disinformation. Furthermore, Trump proved willing to accept Russian help last time around. He is sure to welcome it (or even solicit it, in the case of Ukraine) again now, meaning the convergence of foreign interference and Trump’s disinformation apparatus will be complete.
Of course, seeking to stoke chaos and outrage is one thing, but physically manipulating vote counts is another altogether. Today’s antiquated and decentralized voting system is vulnerable, as we learned in 2016. State and local governments run elections, and some have been hesitant to work too closely with the federal government to secure their election systems. Yet they lack the resources and know-how to protect those systems from a State-sponsored attack. Many states are left vulnerable.
Voting is the foundation of any democracy. Trust in the results is paramount. In 2016, despite Russian interference, we generally accepted the vote count. Despite Trump suggesting the 2016 vote might be rigged, the public has generally accepted the result, lulled by official reports that the Russian operation did not change any actual votes tallies, while its effect on voters’ preferences remains unknown.
But with the Trump administration eroding the public’s trust in all U.S. institutions, including the press, law enforcement, the Intelligence Community, and even the courts, Russia’s job is made even easier. It doesn’t even need to change vote counts, since the mere knowledge (or suspicion) that Russia might have tampered with the voting infrastructure in any way will undermine faith in the outcome of the election.
Additionally, Trump’s penchant for conspiracy theories and instinct for lying has signaled to a large part of the population that they should not trust officialdom, and has also conditioned us all to be wary of anything we learn. It doesn’t help that the president himself sometimes pushes the narrative that the vote will be rigged, priming us for his possible rejection of the results should he lose in November.
In fact, for precisely this reason, it may be in Russia’s interest to interfere more overtly this time around. Even if election systems are secured and actual vote tallies remain untouched, foreign disruptors could still sow discord and chaos by changing numbers on public-facing web sites or spreading rumors that vote tallies are illegitimate. In 2016, for example, several public websites for local vote tallies malfunctioned. As Vox reported, in one Florida county, “online precinct results were delayed and then fluctuated wildly. In Broward County, the results displayed 30 minutes before polls closed.”
The recent foibles surrounding the Iowa Caucus, and subsequent comments from Trump and others seeking to delegitimize the outcome, provide further exploitable fodder for Russian intelligence operatives to manipulate and amplify. As we approach the 2020 election, it is becoming clear that the mere perception of a problem can be used to undermine confidence in the outcome of elections. In this sense, Putin doesn’t need to do much to manufacture trouble, he merely needs to “nudge” a population already inclined to believe the worst about their domestic political opponents. Like the devil on Bluto’s shoulder in “Animal House” imploring him to follow his base instincts, Putin doesn’t have to do much to set us against each other.
It is easy to imagine the disinformation that would spread like wildfire were anyone to suggest the existence of irregularities. At what point would the public know the results were official? Would the public accept anyone saying they were official? Will any loser be confident that his or her vote totals were correct?
Even more likely, a few well-placed stories or rumors can have the same effect. Intelligence services utilize these low-cost operations for exactly this reason. They can easily play on Americans’ trust and confidence, and the effect continues long after the initial assault is over. These days, the Kremlin hardly needs to do much to stoke Americans’ fears and distrust of each other, especially with a U.S. president working to divide Americans along political, religious and citizenship lines. Russia also knows that the American system is predicated on trust, and that trust is fleeting and easy to bruise. All it needs to do now is continue to “nudge” the U.S. in the direction it is going naturally.
A recent Axios article highlighted a significant lack of trust in the official institutions that manage U.S. elections. “If the 2020 presidential election is close enough to trigger a fight over the results, the public’s confidence is so low in key people and institutions that no one is likely to be a trusted referee,” according to the report.
A tight election result could easily lead to drawn-out fights over who is the legitimate winner. And the conditions are right for neither side to have full confidence in whoever is ultimately declared the winner. In a worst-case scenario, this could make a peaceful transition of power difficult.
That situation is ripe for the covert actions of a hostile actor. Putin does not care if Trump wins. He simply wants to weaken the U.S. Making the country question the outcome of the most sacred part of democracy is a good way to do it.
But it is also incumbent on us not to overreact to Russian actions aimed at outraging us, or to become so despondent by assaults on our institutions that we give up. The only defense against the onslaught of disinformation and fomentation—no matter the source—is a return to provable fact. And the only antidote to the political situation we find ourselves in is informed participation in the political process.