Election 2020

Misinformation Season Is Over

The American public is already confused. China, Iran, and Russia may now get more creative with their election meddling.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A poster showing six wanted Russian military intelligence officers is displayed as FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich appears at a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington on Oct. 19.
A poster showing six wanted Russian military intelligence officers is displayed as FBI Deputy Director David Bowdich appears at a news conference at the Department of Justice in Washington on Oct. 19. Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images

A Russian hacker group known as CyberBerkut knows what to do during elections. If needed, it can falsify electronic voting records, for example, to make it appear that a candidate who received 1 percent of the vote in fact won the election. The group was almost able to pull that off in Ukraine’s presidential elections six years ago. The hack was discovered in time, but U.S. voters should keep it mind and prepare for confusion on Nov. 3—and Nov. 4, and possibly beyond.

The purpose of CyberBerkut’s attack was “to discredit the election process,” as a Ukrainian official later told Wired reporter Andy Greenberg. Although many Americans assume that China, Iran, and Russia engage in election interference because they support either President Donald Trump or his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, the reality is much more straightforward: These countries interfere with U.S. elections to sow confusion. A United States whose citizens can’t even agree on what constitutes a fact is a dream scenario for anyone trying to outflank it. It is far less risky than betting on a particular candidate, after all, who will have their own constituencies to serve. As Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the University of Chicago, pointed out last week, Russian leader Vladimir Putin sees all American leaders as adversaries.

A Russian hacker group known as CyberBerkut knows what to do during elections. If needed, it can falsify electronic voting records, for example, to make it appear that a candidate who received 1 percent of the vote in fact won the election. The group was almost able to pull that off in Ukraine’s presidential elections six years ago. The hack was discovered in time, but U.S. voters should keep it mind and prepare for confusion on Nov. 3—and Nov. 4, and possibly beyond.

The purpose of CyberBerkut’s attack was “to discredit the election process,” as a Ukrainian official later told Wired reporter Andy Greenberg. Although many Americans assume that China, Iran, and Russia engage in election interference because they support either President Donald Trump or his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, the reality is much more straightforward: These countries interfere with U.S. elections to sow confusion. A United States whose citizens can’t even agree on what constitutes a fact is a dream scenario for anyone trying to outflank it. It is far less risky than betting on a particular candidate, after all, who will have their own constituencies to serve. As Konstantin Sonin, a professor at the University of Chicago, pointed out last week, Russian leader Vladimir Putin sees all American leaders as adversaries.

In that way, the puny amounts Russia spent interfering with the last U.S. election (the Facebook ads were around $46,000) were a spectacular investment. Much of the electorate mistrusts the validity of the result. Meanwhile, election interference remains a dominant theme in the U.S. coverage of this cycle, with a staggering three-quarters of Americans convinced that foreign governments are likely to interfere in this election too. Whether they will (the FBI says they already are) or won’t, the public will always have doubt about the credibility of the result.

Given the bang for the buck in interfering with U.S. elections, it is worth watching to see whether Russia, China, and Iran get creative. It would be a good investment for them to spend more than they did on the 2016 election, but these countries may already consider Americans sufficiently confused and disunited, making 2016-style misinformation campaigns not worth it. They could instead bank on something that would require a distracted United States to swiftly take action, and where it would be unclear what the right response would be. An armed attack on a neighboring country, perhaps? A string of cyberattacks on hospitals in a swing state? Disruption of COVID-19 vaccine research?

But such stunts would just be icing on the cake. As things stand, neither Russia nor any other country really needs to try any old tricks or even new ones to sow disarray: The United States is so busy confusing itself that its adversaries can just sit back and watch as what is sure to be a hectic few days unfold.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist for Foreign Policy  and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw