The 2020 election cycle has been, well, wild to say the least. But with all the concerns over pandemic safety, mail-in ballots, and the general vitriol of the election cycle, there’s also the issue of foreign interference in the election. Since 2016, the term “Russian election meddling” has dominated headlines, daily news articles, and social media. In 2018, the U.S. even indicted Russian hackers for their interference in the 2016 election. But what about this year? Here’s everything you should know about Russian meddling in the 2020 election.
Firstly, it’s pretty indisputable that Russia previously meddled in U.S. elections. In January 2017, only a few months after the election, a report from U.S intelligence agencies found that Russia led a campaign to influence voting during the 2016 election. According to the report, Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to help then-candidate Donald Trump win the presidency, while also undermining American trust in U.S. democratic processes and elections. “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” the report, which was jointly drafted by the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency (NSA), said. “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” The report added that the agencies had a “high confidence” in that assessment.
And with barely a month to the 2020 presidential election, there’s evidence that it’s all happening again. In order to protect yourself — and your vote — before you hit the polls, let’s take a look at what Russian meddling actually is and how it might affect you.
What does Russian meddling look like?
In both 2016 and 2020, most of the Russian influence campaigns aim to influence voters, rather than to target major political systems. Some anonymous trolls post misinformation or divisive memes meant to get voters worked up about divisive issues. Other times, the goal is to discourage young, Democratic voter turnout by disseminating fake news, with messages like “F*CK THE ELECTIONS.” Meanwhile, other Russian trolls try to promote partisan disagreement. One example is the Instagram account @progressive.voice, which had over 2,000 followers before Instagram deactivated it in October 2019 due to Kremlin links, per The New York Times. Facebook also removed the page “Blacktivist” in 2017 after finding out that Russian trolls created it.
Much of this kind of influence is overseen by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) — the Russian troll farm found responsible for meddling with the 2016 U.S. election. In 2016, these Russian troll accounts could often be spotted by their large followings and lengthy, typo-laden memes. However, in 2020, the IRA’s tactics have changed. The group often creates false personas or groups that seem legitimate, according to a Brennan Center for Justice report from March 2020, manipulating real Americans into spreading their messages. Then, they use those false identities paired with real people to get published in the mainstream U.S. media.
“We’re not seeing [the IRA] create new content like that,” says Alexandra Vacroux, the executive director at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, referring to the Kremlin-made memes of 2016. “Now they don’t have to, because oftentimes what Trump says or what they find on other fringe sites is enough for them to amplify.”
For example: the case of fake news site Peace Data, which was run by Russians but hired real Americans to write controversial articles, according to The New York Times. The writers, who were unaware of Peace Data’s background, were reportedly asked to pen articles that promoted conspiracy theories or undermined political candidates. Peace Data and its social media accounts were shut down after an FBI investigation linked the site to the IRA. Their 14 social media pages had about 14,000 followers collectively at the time. In a final press release, Peace Data claimed they’d been shut down in an attempt to “silence free speech.”
This kind of “information laundering” is the latest example of the IRA attempting to sway American opinions, and provides some evidence that Kremlin trolls are working harder to hide their tracks.
“Creating new Facebook pages and troll accounts has very little impact,” says Aric Toler, a researcher for the investigative publication Bellingcat, which has researched Russian foreign interference. “But creating a fake expert that can get published in sites that are already well-read with American voters is a way more effective strategy of trying to shift (ever so slightly) public opinion on certain topics.”
According to Vacroux, sometimes a small shift in public opinion is all it takes to sway the electoral college in swing states. “You don’t have to influence that many people in order to tip those states that matter,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be that widespread, just very clever.”
Besides social media trolling, there’s also the issue of confidential leaks. In July 2016, just before the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks released over 40,000 emails and 17,000 attachments from the DNC and Hillary Clinton campaign officials. These emails included personal contact information, evidence that the DNC derided Bernie Sanders’ campaign, and general campaign gossip. The DNC later apologized to Sanders, calling the emails “inexcusable.”
The CIA and the 2018 Mueller report both attributed the leaks to the Russian Military Intelligence Agency, or GRU, which hacked the emails under the username Guccifer 2.0 and sent them to WikiLeaks. Clinton’s campaign suffered from the hack: According to FiveThirtyEight, the timeline of Clinton’s fall in the polls roughly matched the WikiLeaks publishing schedule.
“The drip-drip-drip news cycle of these leaks dominated the media space for months until the 2016 election and did change hearts and minds, and likely voting preferences,” says Toler.
Why is Russia interfering?
So, why does Russia care so much, and what are its motivations?
From a wider perspective, foreign countries have a stake in our election results. World leaders prefer friendly international policies, especially from other powerful nations, and by the U.S. intelligence community’s own assessment, Russia prefers having Trump in the White House.
“The real advantage of the Trump presidency for Russia is that he’s reduced American involvement abroad,” says Vacroux. “He’s weakened [international alliance] NATO and actually threatened to pull out of NATO if re-elected, which is great for the Russians.” According to Vacroux, this creates a power vacuum for Russia to jump into, much like what happened with the U.S. withdrawal from Syria in 2019.
Experts believe the main reason behind Russian meddling is to destabilize our democracy. “Since the ‘90s, Russian institutions have been eroding,” says Elizaveta Kuznetsova, a Davis Center research fellow and Russian scholar at the City, University of London. “As a means of survival they have little left than to resort to the tools inherited from the Soviet times — namely, counter-propaganda, which is aimed at undermining the dominant in the West norms and beliefs and seeding skepticism and mistrust in democratic institutions.”
By causing chaos in the United States, Russia can escape some international pressure from American lawmakers. “The U.S. has become so polarized and unstable that it’s really not that interested in what’s going on everywhere else,” says Vacroux. “We would expect a Biden presidency to be much more attentive to Russia’s domestic situation, economic and political, and likely firmer in terms of criticizing what’s going on within the regime.”
It doesn’t hurt that Donald Trump has been notoriously kind to Putin in the press. In 2018, Trump said, “I'd have a very good relationship with President Putin if we spend time together.” In addition, White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney reportedly instructed Kirstjen Nielsen, the former Homeland Security secretary, to not involve Trump with meetings related to Russian interference, per a 2019 New York Times report. Mulvaney told the Times at the time of the report that he “[didn’t] recall” any such instructions.
Trump has also advanced certain Russian goals during his time in office. For example, he has repeatedly suggested readmitting Russia to the powerful international diplomatic group called the Group of 7, or G7, making his most recent pitch in June 2020. Russia was previously a member (the group was then known as the G8), but was kicked out after the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. He’s also reportedly been reluctant to sign sanctions on Russia, praised Putin’s “victory” in an election widely seen as rigged, froze aid money meant to help Russia’s political and military opponents in Ukraine, and allegedly shared U.S. intelligence information with Russia. Trump stated in a 2017 tweet that he has the “absolute right” to share U.S. intelligence information with Russia. CNN compiled a list of at least 37 times since Trump took office that his policies benefited Russia.
What does this mean for the 2020 election?
As of 2020, the IRA and its affiliates are still well at work. In 2019, Facebook announced it had removed over 75,000 posts by IRA-affiliated accounts, and continues to release monthly reviews of Russian troll activity. Peace Data was among the Kremlin-linked groups revealed in the August 2020 report.
There are also documented cyberattacks against the Biden campaign already. Area 1 Security, a California-based cybersecurity firm, reported in January that Russian agents tried to hack into emails from the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. Hunter Biden, presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s son, was on Burisma’s board of directors from 2014 to 2019.
According to Toler, “A big release of Burisma emails (maybe with a fabricated document or two mixed in, as Russia has done in the past with the Macron leaks and some other hacks) that is played up 24/7 on Fox News and Breitbart, can have a real impact on our election.”
This aligns with the opinions of the country’s top security officials. In an August 2020 statement, William Evanina, the director of national intelligence, confirmed that Russia is acting to “denigrate former Vice President Biden.” On Sept. 17, FBI Director Christopher Wray also publicly testified to the House Committee on Homeland Security that Russia is trying to “malign foreign influence in an effort to hurt Biden's campaign,” per CNN.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to sow election insecurity by questioning the validity of mail-in voting and intelligence on Russian interference. In response to Wray’s testimony, Trump tweeted: “But Chris, you don’t see any activity from China, even though it is a FAR greater threat than Russia, Russia, Russia. They will both, plus others, be able to interfere in our 2020 Election with our totally vulnerable Unsolicited (Counterfeit?) Ballot Scam. Check it out!”
But you can protect yourself and your vote.
The idea of Russian election meddling is troubling, but there are some ways to protect your vote this November. First, remember to be mindful of the information you see/share on social media — especially if the source is anonymous. “I think the most important thing for voters is to really think about the quality of news they’re relying on,” says Vacroux. “Check your sources.” Vacroux recommends getting your news from reliable, vetted sources rather than from social media.
Second, make sure you get out there and vote. Russian meddling often spreads anti-voting messages to the people less likely to vote for Trump. During the 2016 election, a margin of just 107,000 people in four key states — Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — lost Clinton the presidency. “If you look at the impact of [Russian] efforts to disenfranchise Black voters and get evangelicals and, say, veterans out to the polls last time, you can explain a lot of the difference between the Clinton popular vote and the Trump vote in those four popular states,” says Vacroux. The lesson? “Don’t let anyone tell you your vote doesn’t matter.”
Despite Trump’s claims, mail-in voting is safe and secure. The earliest deadline for requesting an absentee ballot by mail is Oct. 13 (and don’t forget to send it in!). Your opinion and voice matter, especially this Election Day. The best thing to do to fight misinformation and election meddling is stay informed, and cast your vote.