Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts 7 Potential Disinformation Disasters Headed into Election 2020
7 Potential Disinformation Disasters Headed into Election 2020

7 Potential Disinformation Disasters Headed into Election 2020

July 30, 2020

Post by Clint Watts

A year ago when we kicked off the Foreign Influence Election 2020 (FIE 2020) project, our chief concern was foreign interference from a hostile nation influencing the outcome of this November’s contest, similar to what the U.S. experienced in 2016. 

Well, much has changed over the last year. An impeachment trial has come and gone. There was the assassination of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Suleimani. A global pandemic started in China and has spread widely across America while political factions spar over how to respond to the virus, allowing for further spread. Protests in response to the death of George Floyd have continued for months. There have been more Black Swan events—unpredictable situations with severe consequences—than I can count in just the past year.

One trend, however, has remained a constant across all of these unpredictable events—the steady stream of foreign and domestic propaganda and disinformation that is destabilizing American democracy. Despite having access to more information than at any other point in human history, it’s difficult for anyone to know what is true and what to believe about any given current events issue. 

As election season heats up this summer and into the fall, the peddlers of disinformation—foreign and domestic—have never had so much conspiracy to use in pitting the American electorate against itself and forever tarnishing our democratic institutions. Add to this age of burgeoning conspiracy a populace confined at home, under economic pressure, fearful of COVID-19 or in denial of its existence, and spending more time than ever on social media. This fall, headed into the election, may be a disinformation apocalypse the likes the world has never seen. As we prepare to defend the integrity of democracy in this upcoming election, here are seven doomsday disinformation scenarios ripe for the picking, some already well underway and all requiring preparation to avoid catastrophe.  

1. Viral mail-in ballot conspiracies and threats to delay the election based on mail-in voting

Dangers of infections at polling places have initiated the largest migration to mail-in and absentee voting in U.S. history. Some states have already made the switch, others are debating it, and some have created obstacles making the transition to mail-in voting nearly impossible. The president and many in his administration spread disinformation about mail-in voting by claiming, without evidence and to the contrary of much evidence, that mail-in voting will result in voter fraud. Trump has further amplified and complicated this disinformation by asserting in a June 22 tweet that “millions of mail-in ballots will be printed by foreign countries.” Most concerning is Trump’s suggestion posted on Twitter on July 30 that because of the alleged fraud in mail-in voting, the U.S. might consider delaying the 2020 U.S. presidential electionMeanwhile, the Russians smile widely as once again Americans do the work of undermining democracy for them. Russia Today (RT) was quick to amplify mail-in voting conspiracies as early as May, publishing an op-ed titled “Donald Trump is completely right about mail-in ballots – they are the easiest route to a RIGGED ELECTION.” 

Worries of deepfakes heading into Election Day tend to focus on manipulated conspiracies about the candidates. But I’m far more worried about an artfully created conspiracy video about ballots, similar to the sort we’ve seen during the recent infodemic surrounding COVID-19 and widespread protests. A false or manipulated video alleging voter fraud by mail could easily spread virally across the social media ecosystem fueling widespread allegations of election rigging so extreme that it touches off protests, riots, armed standoffs or even violence. Such a video might be used by President Trump to bolster any calls to delay the election.

2. One or both candidates contract COVID-19

Rewind four years and recall a central narrative advanced by foreign and domestic disinformation influencers: the allegation that former Senator Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease. Just one year ago, I raised on Real Time With Bill Maher what many thought was a joke (it was not), but was meant to be a warningthe advanced age of the three leading contenders for the presidency represents a huge risk for a divided country facing unprecedented global challenges. Until the coronavirus is brought under control, we have a serious challenge ahead regarding the danger COVID-19 poses to 2020’s presidential candidates. 

Severe illness from COVID-19 correlates strongly with age—the older the higher risk. President Trump, at 74, and former Vice President Biden, at 77, would be highly vulnerable to COVID-19 if they were to contract it. As Election Day approaches, both candidates will be pressured to pursue more public appearances and in-person campaign events. President Trump largely refuses to wear a mask, and members of his inner circle have tested positive for the virus, with National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien being the latest and most high-ranking person to contract the virus. Every cough, sniff or misstep at a microphone, and at their ages they’ve both had many, could be exploited by their opponent and amplified from afar as a sign of COVID-19. 

Take this scenario one step further: One of the candidates is hospitalized for an extended period or dies due to COVID-19, just before the election or in the months shortly after the election. We’ve already seen a milder version of this situation with former presidential candidate Herman Cain, who was hospitalized for several weeks before succumbing to COVID-19—speculation currently runs amok on social media. Should this occur for Trump or Biden, surely we’d see stories alleging a political party’s replacing a candidate without a voting process, the substitution made by elites instead of voters … the list conspiracies could go on for pages. Americans would flock to COVID-19 conspiracies of elite control, further degrading the authority of U.S. institutions. 

3. The election results aren’t known on Election Night 

Americans should brace themselves for Election Night. With the pandemic, a dramatic increase in mail-in and absentee ballots, and memories of the disastrous events during the Iowa caucuses earlier this year, it will likely take far longer for the states to accurately tally and communicate their results. It could take days, weeks, or maybe close to a month, I don’t believe anyone really knows. Two decades ago, amid the chaos of the 2000 election surrounding the hanging chads, everyone remained somewhat calm during the fiasco, but that definitely will not be the case this time. 

Amplifying this confusion in 2020 will be the political divide between how people vote—“in-person red” versus “by-mail blue.” It’s not just conceivable, but perhaps likely, that initial results from in-person voting point to a GOP win in a state that might later turn into a Democratic victory after mail-in ballots are counted. Ohio, often a decisive swing state, may be a place where this occurs. Disinformation peddlers can seize on this gap in tallies to sow confusion about the integrity of the results. We should prepare for an outlandish amount of disinformation surfacing about who won the election. President Trump, should he lose, will most certainly promote this disinformation regarding voter fraud seeing as he perpetuated such a conspiracy in 2016 despite winning the presidency. Trump could declare victory early, then battle for days or weeks, questioning the results and sowing doubt about who exactly decided the winner. The destruction inflicted on public trust and confidence in American democracy would be immense and would make governing in January unbelievably challenging.

4. Allegations of election rigging bring armed militias to polling places

Even though I had been working with a team tracking Russian disinformation headed into Election Night 2016, four years ago I was most concerned about Americans falling for a mix of American and foreign fake news about voter fraud and election rigging, taking up arms and storming a polling place on false pretenses. Luckily that didn’t happen, but only a few weeks later a man arrived with an assault rifle in hand at a Washington, D.C., pizza place and fired as he investigated a bogus online conspiracy known as Pizzagate

When it comes to mobs, protests, armed standoffs and online nonsense, 2016 has nothing on 2020. In the last four months, we’ve seen the largest demonstrations in recent U.S. history, armed men storm state capitols, mobilizations to Gettysburg on Independence Day based on bogus social media posts, protestors shot in New Mexico, Louisville and Austin, and a family of campers blocked from leaving a campsite by cut-down trees in Washington state based on disinformation about mythical Antifa hordes coming to town.

A classic provocation in nefarious Kremlin influence has been the surfacing of armed men attempting to take over election operations—Montenegro in 2017 offers one such example. And while the Kremlin has ample reach into America to help instigate such a maneuver this November, it’s probably more likely that a domestic conspiracy or militia group will undertake this action on their own.

5. A cyberattack occurs in a battleground state or where results are aggregated

Beyond disinformation targeting swing states, a foreign or domestic cyberattack strategically launched in a battleground state could be devastating. Many still believe Russia altered the count in 2016 despite assurances from the U.S. government that did not happen. We’ve watched on two occasions (in 2018 and 2020) how targeted voter disenfranchisement has played out in Georgia. America has rightly focused on protecting voting machines and rolls, but there are dozens of cyberattack scenarios where major disruptions could prevent the tallying or aggregating results without targeting polling places themselves. 

Imagine the implications, if on Election Day, specific precincts in Georgia or another key battleground state undergo a cyberattack that knocks its vote tallying systems offline. I don’t mean changing votes or manipulating voter rolls, the kind of stuff Russian has already undertaken or tested. A power outage might deny votes, and a ransomware attack might make it impossible to aggregate and publish results without delay. Infiltration of one or more social media platforms or new agencies placing bogus vote tallies that end up broadcast into the public would be horribly disorienting for voters. Each of these situations would trigger a tsunami of conspiracies and disinformation.

6. ‘Post Terminum’ chaos – the period between Election Day 2020 and Inauguration Day 2021

A lag in reporting the final outcome on Election Day, a disinformation debate over vote rigging and electoral fraud, one party or the other refusing to concede, the opportunity for foreign adversaries to dive in and amplify chaos, armed militias in the streets, protestors convening on state capitols—the 77 days between Election Day 2020 and Inauguration Day in 2021 may be the most chaotic, confusing and stressful period in American history. 

President Trump, just last week, offered no assurances about whether he’d accept the results of the election. When asked by Chris Wallace during a July 19 Fox News interview if he may not accept the election results he replied that he’d “have to see.” Political campaigns and foreign adversaries are likely to exploit this period to sow unrest and use its divisive and derisive nature to  instill fear, incite panic, stoke anger and, depending on the outcome, encourage President Trump to stay in the White House should he lose. What would the federal government do if President Trump were to lose but refuse to leave? Who would be in charge? What would Americans do that believe President Trump should stay in office? What would Ameriancs do that believe President Trump should be removed from the White House, even if by force? Some are already contemplating these scenarios, pointing to the less well-known wrinkles that could occur when electors of the Electoral College convene on December 14, 2020, particularly if the vote in decisive states remains contested. 

7. The president loses the popular vote, but wins the election (again)

I’ve spent most of the last decade studying extremism, foreign influence and disinformation. All remain threats to democracy, but none pose such an undermining effect on the integrity of American democracy than the Electoral College system ushering in presidents that have lost the popular vote. Two of the last five elections have been won by the loser of the popular vote. In the most recent occurrence, this has led President Trump to assume office with a minority of popular support, meeting resistance on nearly every political issue and failing to progress the country in a unified way. It’s possible that Trump may win again in November, but lose the popular vote by an even wider margin.

The left-leaning coastal states of America—many that generate the largest contributions to the American economy and who’ve been admonished by President Trump during the pandemic—may begin to evaluate the legitimacy of a union governed by the losing vote recipient whose views, policies and actions are unrepresentative of the majority of the country and particularly unrepresentative of future generations. Some on the far right may advocate for a “second Civil War” should President Trump lose, but we may also see some on the political left advocate for the “First Divorce”—a divestment in federal resourcing by some states or, in extreme cases, calls for an exit from the union. Foreign adversaries will have a field day with this scenario; Vladimir Putin has long used the victory of the minority popular vote recipient to say “there is no true democracy there,” in America.

Surviving this devastating period of coming division will require federal agencies to prepare now for a hectic six months by acting as defenders of their institutions and proactively rehearsing for these scenarios. State and local officials, though, will likely be the biggest determinants in whether America survives Election Day 2020 and beyond inauguration in January. Americans committed to democracy will need to risk their health, safety and sanity to ensure the electoral process occurs for all, and that our democratic institutions endure in the face of unprecedented falsehoods and manipulation. In total, we’ll need the majority of Americans to choose democracy over their candidates on Election Day.