Election 2020

Foreign Actors Haven’t Interfered Like Last Time. But the Disinformation Fight Is Just Beginning.

The main goal of foreign adversaries is to sow distrust in U.S. democracy itself—and they have an ally in the White House.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Supporters raise signs at Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders's campaign rally in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 8.
Supporters raise signs at Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders's campaign rally in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, on March 8. Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

For all the chaos of the preelection period, there is at least one bright spot: Attempts by foreign actors to sway the U.S. electorate have largely been contained. But that doesn’t mean the fight against disinformation will end Tuesday.

Social media giants reacted quickly to take down networks of Russian troll accounts before they accrued large followings, U.S. intelligence officials exposed Iran’s hand behind a bizarre flurry of emails sent to Democrats in swing states, and the media has—mostly—cast a critical eye on the dubious provenance of information that has surfaced about former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden. 

But some of the worst damage wrought by Russian intervention in 2016 came after the election, as the overt interference ended up pitting the president against the U.S. intelligence community and undermining faith in U.S. democracy. Experts caution that the worst may still be yet to come as foreign actors feed off a swamp of domestic disinformation.

A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee found that in the wake of the 2016 vote, Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), better known as the troll factory, actually increased its social media activity. On Instagram, troll factory activity went up by as much as 238 percent. 

“Accounts operated by the IRA troll farm became more active after the election, confirming again that the assault on our democratic process is much bigger than the attack on a single election,” then-White House chief of staff John Kelly told the Senate committee in 2018.

With election counts expected to take longer this year due to the volume of mail-in ballots, the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency warned in September that online agitators could try to take advantage of the post-election lag. “Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy,” the agencies said in a joint statement

Shortly before Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, the U.S. intelligence community published an assessment that concluded that, fundamentally, Moscow interfered to “undermine public faith in the US democratic process,” as well as to weaken the Hillary Clinton campaign and to tip the scales in favor of Trump. The main target was always to discredit democracy—not just Clinton.

“We take a very horse race view of politics, and I think we’ve therefore taken a very horse race view of foreign interference. It’s which actor is helping which candidate and by how much,” said Laura Rosenberger, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “Using those lenses as a primary way of understanding foreign interference actually misses the point of what our adversaries are really trying to do.”

Disinformation experts have long sought to toe a careful line, raising awareness about foreign interference while not playing into the Kremlin’s hands by overstating the capabilities of Russian intelligence. “I think the much bigger, more impactful thing was the constant talking about Russia, Russian propaganda. Because Russian propaganda aims to disorient us, just by virtue of banging on about it, it kind of does their job for them,” said Rory Cormac, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham who specializes in intelligence and covert action.

Or as Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, put it: “The conversation about what happened in 2016 caused more harm than what actually happened.”

Foreign adversaries looking to undermine trust in the integrity of the election this year can build on the groundwork already laid by domestic actors, including Trump and his allies. On Monday, Twitter hid a Trump tweet attacking a Supreme Court decision to extend the deadline for receiving mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. Trump claimed that it would allow for “unchecked cheating” and “undermine our entire system of laws,” even though research has shown that voter fraud is an extremely rare occurrence. He has also repeatedly suggested that he could only lose if the election were “rigged.”

“The old school disinformation active measures playbook is that you exacerbate existing tensions, and this is, I think, where the two meet. We have the current president, who has announced again and again that he believes the election will be rigged,” said Rid, the author of Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. “If I were a foreign actor planning a disinformation operation, that’s exactly where I would aim,” he said. 

Taking its cues from Trump and other Republican officials, Russian state-sponsored media like RT and Sputnik have been “hammering” the idea of electoral fraud, said Cindy Otis, a former CIA analyst. 

“You can’t detach the two from each other simply because so much of what Russia and China and Iran do is focused on simply amplifying what is already domestically generated, and a vast amount of misinformation and disinformation surrounding the election, in the run-up and certainly after, is coming from Americans themselves,” said Otis, the author of True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News.

Over the past four years, a cottage industry has sprung up to analyze, fact-check, and combat disinformation. But experts caution that addressing the underlying causes that make Americans so susceptible to emotionally charged disinformation requires far more extensive—and fundamental—efforts to fix. Other countries such as Finland have proved that it is possible through strong public education and the building of critical thinking skills to defend against disinformation. 

“Let’s start with lack of funding for public schools. Let’s start with the fact that people have very limited access to media in certain parts of this country,” said Otis, who is now VP of Analysis at Alethea Group. “For long-term resiliency, to solve this for future generations, you do have to package in all those other things as well.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack