It was just two weeks out from election day when officials in Washington made the announcement: Russia and Iran were interfering in the electoral process. In a bid to “intimidate voters”, the Iranians were sending fake emails that mimicked the far-right US group the Proud Boys, said controversial national intelligence head John Ratcliffe – and “we have confirmed that some voter registration information has been obtained by Iran and, separately, by Russia”.
Even as Iran was named, US officials separately maintained that Russia remained the largest threat. The warnings, which US agencies had been issuing for months, caused a cringe-inducing ripple of deja vu: Russia’s interference has plagued the US since 2016, an election year marked by a barrage of disinformation, hacks and leakings of Democrats’ information, and armies of “trolls” marshalled from abroad.
Already in October, the Department of Justice had announced the indictments of six hackers from Russia’s military unit 74455, accused of some of the most destructive “hacks” on other nations – including France, Ukraine and South Korea – in recent years. This was the same group that assisted in the now-infamous 2016 hack-and-leak operation on the Democrats, although they were not indicted in relation to this.
Was the US government warning we were on the tip of some fresh iceberg? How is Russia involved in this election? What form does its interference take? And how has a climate of “fake news” taken on a life of its own in the US?
How has meddling in politics evolved?
Covert interference by one country in the political processes of another is not new. During the Cold War, the Soviets tapped networks of agents, “fellow travellers” (ideologically sympathetic people) in leftist parties, and intermediaries abroad to spread disinformation. The US, meanwhile, provided covert funding for favoured parties and politicians, election advice and training in places such as the Philippines.
The US and the Soviet Union both funded parties and politicians in Chile in the 1960s. The Soviets sought to influence elections in Pakistan in the 1960s, and spread fabricated stories in West Germany in the 1980s. The CIA intervened in the Italian election of 1948 to undermine the Communist-dominated Popular Front and help the Western-aligned Liberal Party – and so the list goes on.
But then something important happened: the Cold War ended in the early ’90s, and the objectives of the US and Russia diverged, writes historian David Shimer. “Since then, Russian intelligence has interfered in many foreign elections, not to advance an ideology but to promote divisive and authoritarian-minded candidates, sow chaos and confusion, and delegitimise the democratic model.”
Since the late 2000s, Russia has shown a particular adventurism, willing to court risks through intervention when it suits.
With the exception of efforts to thwart the re-election of the Serbian leader and human rights abuser Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, the CIA has refrained from meddling in elections, according to Shimer. “Contrary to Putin’s claims, Washington, unlike Moscow, has moved away from the practice of covert electoral interference,” he writes in Foreign Affairs.
Since the late 2000s, Russia has shown a particular adventurism in political interference, willing to court risks through intervention when it suits, such as in Ukrainian affairs, including to discredit the pro-democracy movement in 2014; and to undermine French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron in 2017. A recent UK parliamentary study into the threat of Russian interference in British politics concludes that Russia’s “poor national brand and lack of long-term global friends appear to feed its enormous risk appetite – perhaps on the basis that it thinks it has nothing to lose …”
Russia has also sought to build bridges with groups in the US. Russian national Maria Butina created back-channel ties between the Kremlin and conservatives associated with the politically powerful National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast network. She pleaded guilty in 2018 to acting as a clandestine secret foreign agent. At the activist level, there are also growing ties between Kremlin-sanctioned extremist groups and the US far-right, including Americans who took part in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Russian interference has taken on a new dimension thanks to the internet and social media. In 2016, the Kremlin’s skilful use of social media accounts around hot-button issues in the US, for example, included paid trolls (people who push inflammatory or provocative claims online) effectively tapping the minds of voters in America, framing emotive issues around race, class and politics in ways that increased division and disruption. The US later indicted the oligarch owner of a troll farm in St Petersburg but with little chance of bringing him to heel.
Meanwhile, Russian state-related media online such as RT.com (Russia Today) pushed pro-Trump or anti-Clinton views in 2016, its articles providing shareable material for trolls and bots (automated social media accounts) that inundated the social media accounts of Americans.
Hacking and leaking materials has evolved as a mainstay of the interference tool kit, too. In 2016, Russian intelligence hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and the Democratic Party, which were drip-fed to US media outlets. The emails were “laundered” through WikiLeaks back into the US debate (more on “laundering” later). After the 2016 election, US intelligence concluded that the goal of the Kremlin had been to undermine faith in US democracy, hurt Clinton and help Trump.
Trump, for his part, has been haunted by probes into Russian interference with, and influence over, his 2016 political campaign, most notably the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller. Inquiries into foreign interference have led to arrests, convictions and jailings of a number of his campaign people. But outright collusion between Trump and the Kremlin has never been proven.
All the while, both Trump and the Kremlin have separately worked to discredit these inquiries and perceptions of Russian influence, in large part by fomenting a “counter-narrative” that, essentially, accepts the facts of the probes while re-engineering their meaning. Yes, there was wrongdoing but, in fact, the wrongdoing was the plot by the Democrats and the US intelligence community to stage a “hoax” and libel Trump’s good name, goes the argument.
So what form does interference take in 2020?
Just as dirty money can be laundered through shell companies into a legal economy, concepts and so-called “narratives” that are crafted for maximum division and confusion for America can be published outside the US and laundered into the US conversation. These articles and comment pieces highlight real-life faults in the US yet cast potential solutions in a cynical light, with headlines such as “What is systemic racism, really?” (In fact, a focus on exploiting US racial divides has a long history with the Kremlin.)
Narrative laundering typically works like this: the Kremlin funds a network of journals and outlets outside the US that publish voices with a tone and focus tailored for Americans and other Westerners. “This tactic helps the site appear to be an organic voice within its target audience of Westerners,’ says a US State Department report. In turn, Russian state media can point to these “proxy” websites “as credible and independent sources of information”, according to a US Department of Homeland Security report released in October.
Work-hungry freelance writers in the West have proven useful to the Kremlin in populating these proxy websites.
According to the US State Department, English-language journal Strategic Culture Foundation is linked to a Russian intelligence agency, and features articles by “Western fringe thinkers and conspiracy theorists”. Scrolling over the headlines and accompanying images – such as “A Biden presidency will be as confused and belligerent as Trump’s” – it’s hard not to get the impression that Western leaders preside over irredeemably flawed systems.
Work-hungry freelance writers in the West have proven useful to the Kremlin in populating such proxy websites. In September, Facebook revealed a campaign by the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency to dupe US freelancers into contributing paid articles to a website called Peace Data that targeted “left-leaning voters in the United States and United Kingdom who may be dissuaded from supporting the more centrist leadership of the Democratic and Labour parties”.
After being told their material was commissioned by a Russian troll farm, one US-based freelancer said, “I’m kind of mad at myself for letting this happen and not being a little bit more critical.”
You can see the effect over time; researchers in the US, for example, have found a “convergence” of Kremlin-sponsored viewpoints with those on Fox News.
Story by story, post by post, all of these pieces of content help create what FBI director Christopher Wray has called a “steady drumbeat of misinformation”.
What is all the fuss about Hunter Biden?
Earlier in 2020, Russian hackers stole emails from Ukrainian utilities company Burisma where Joe Biden’s son Hunter had worked until 2019. At the time, Donald Trump was being impeached for abuse of power related to his efforts to have the Ukraine government launch an investigation into Joe Biden.
Russia’s desire to hack material in a business where Hunter Biden had worked raised eyebrows in the US at the time for the potential similarity to the hacks of the Democrats in 2016. By mid-September 2020, the FBI’s Wray warned that Russia sought “primarily to denigrate [former] vice-president Biden and what the Russians see as kind of an anti-Russian establishment”.
In October, when a dubious story surfaced in the New York Post centring on emails sent to Hunter Biden, the Biden campaign and former US intelligence officials raised the alarm. The information was reportedly provided by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who has himself been identified as a target of a Russian disinformation influence campaign.
More than 50 US intelligence veterans published a letter expressing their concern that the information “has all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation”.
“Such an operation would be consistent with Russian objectives […] to create political chaos in the United States and to deepen political divisions here but also to undermine the candidacy of former vice-president Biden and thereby help the candidacy of President Trump,” the group wrote.
Joe Biden invoked their assessment in the presidential debate on October 23: “We are in a situation where we have foreign countries trying to interfere in the outcome of our election.”
Trump has played up the specious Hunter Biden claims throughout this campaign, just as he did with the “crooked Hillary” theme in 2016. Even if claims about Hunter Biden have been thoroughly debunked and reported, Trump’s disinformation, in sync with Kremlin outlets, ensures they are relentlessly promoted within the US.
But surely not all discord in the US is Russia’s fault?
Of course not. Politics has grown so polarised in the US that Americans are increasingly sharing falsehoods in their own right. Moreover, the normalisation of campaign disinformation, particularly among the US right, has been under way, frankly, since the 1980s – and the trend got a shot in the arm with conservative direct mail outreach campaigns, the rise of talkback radio and the creation of Fox News.
The US has many home-grown conspiracy theories and the culture is prone to bouts of hysteria. Since Trump’s election, political misinformation (incorrect but sincerely shared) and disinformation (deliberately false) has hit a new high. At any time, the impact of a foreign interference and influence campaign can be difficult to judge. The US government, while issuing warnings to voters, reassures the public that their votes count and they have the ultimate say in their own politics.
While Russian interference doesn’t account for most of the discord in the US today, it can certainly inflame it and has even, at least once, engineered it when protests and counter-protests in Houston were organised remotely by trolls in Russia.
The Republicans themselves have begun to mimic tactics of the Kremlin’s experts in the dark arts of political manipulation.
Perhaps the biggest difference between 2016 and 2020 is that the Republicans themselves have begun to mimic authoritarian tactics of the Kremlin’s experts in the dark arts of political manipulation. University College London professor Andrew Wilson wrote as far back as 2017 about the prospect of the White House’s embrace of Kremlin tactics, which includes a host of dirty tricks and manipulative acts with the ethos that “damaging your opponent is all that matters”.
During this campaign, for example, Donald Trump reposted videos of Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that had been manipulated to make the Democrats look as if they were slurring their speech, and spread false rumours about the citizenship of a congresswoman.
Leaks of information for political advantage are another example. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe on September 30 ordered the selective release of unverified intelligence alleging “Clinton had approved a campaign plan to ‘stir up a scandal’ against Trump by tying him to Russia and the hack of the Democratic National Committee”, according to CNN. Amid criticism, Ratcliffe actually released a statement denying it was “Russian disinformation”.
The fast-moving and fragmented nature of information, especially online, creates more opportunities for an overlap between the Kremlin and US voices: Americans who are not necessarily inclined to support Russia but see their own government as a bigger threat can be co-opted to spread disinformation or even galvanised to show up to street protests.
Far-right political activists and voices in the US consistently “keep finding themselves” among the networks of social media accounts and news sites that highlight material hacked by Russian intelligence, writes analyst Molly McKew on GreatPower.us.
“The same outlets and personalities are […] falling all over themselves to flack what is very likely Russian-sourced materials on Hunter Biden.
“Why do these groups always find themselves as willing participants in Russian intelligence operations?”
Should he be elected, Biden has indicated he plans to hold any country interfering in the US elections accountable. In July, amid concerns that the Republicans in the Senate were targets of disinformation, Biden said he would treat foreign interference as “an adversarial act that significantly affects the relationship between the United States and the interfering nation’s government”. He reiterated the statement in a town hall meeting in September.
Trump bristles at mention of Russian interference. Concern about Chinese influence within the United States, whether at a government, commercial or technological level, has been an overriding concern for his administration.
Asked about Russian meddling in the 2016 election in a recent interview, Trump pointed to China. “China meddled also,” Trump said. “And I think, frankly, China is a bigger problem.”
Chris is Digital Foreign Editor.