Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Russia Tried Again, Iran Antagonized, and China Didn’t Show: Insights and Lessons Learned on Foreign Influence in Election 2020
Russia Tried Again, Iran Antagonized, and China Didn’t Show: Insights and Lessons Learned on Foreign Influence in Election 2020

Russia Tried Again, Iran Antagonized, and China Didn’t Show: Insights and Lessons Learned on Foreign Influence in Election 2020

Post by Clint Watts and Rachel Chernaskey

February 18, 2021

The potential for foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election became a top concern as America learned more about the Kremlin’s election interference efforts following the 2016 election. The Senate Intelligence Committee and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations continuously revealed over three years the pervasive employment of cyberattacks and social media manipulation to undermine voter trust and confidence in America’s democratic processes, its institutions and its elected leaders.

Election 2020 proved to be a tumultuous affair, but this past November’s contest largely evaded the kind of foriegn manipulation encountered in the previous presidential election.  The rightful concerns about foreign interference led to better protections in 2020, resulting in the U.S. government and social media companies largely thwarting malign influence efforts from Russia, China and Iran.

Given those changes in the information environment since 2016, the 2020 election provided five key insights and takeaways regarding election interference challenges—the methods, mediums, and actors attempting to manipulate American democracy, all shifting and evolving.

Foreign interference and disinformation paled in comparison to the domestic. Foreign adversaries, particularly Russia and Iran, tried to interfere in the election through online manipulation, real-world campaigns propagated by agents-of-influence, and even targeted email provocations aimed at voting blocs. But no efforts by these authoritarian regimes compared to the disinformation and fake news born at home in 2020. Misinformation and disinformation spread by a range of domestic actors, often led by the person occupying the White House, traveled farther online than any effort by foreign actors.

America defended the social media battleground from adversaries around the world. The U.S. government, social media platforms and tech companies all took a more proactive posture in detecting and responding to online manipulation and interference efforts in 2020 than in 2016, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2020, an investigative report from CNN revealed a Russia-tied troll farm operating out of Ghana. This Russian interference effort targeting Americans surreptitiously from Africa resulted in social media takedowns across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Public reporting also identified websites publishing content spanning the ideological spectrum—such as outlets PeaceData and NAEBC—associated with individuals from the notorious St. Petersburg-based troll farm called the Internet Research Agency (IRA). In August, the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center published its special report, “Russia’s Pillars of Disinformation and Propaganda,” outlining websites acting as key conduits for Kremlin disinformation. Later, U.S. Cyber Command conducted cyber operations aimed at adversaries in the weeks leading up to Election Day and the FBI outed and attributed various online provocations and voter intimidation attempts, including an Iranian email spoof campaign posing as Proud Boys that targeted Democratic voters. Overall, with a more comprehensive effort across the public and private sectors, the U.S. successfully defended the 2020 election against foreign interference.

The next medium of social media influence—video—has arrived. Today’s social media influence is more video-based than text-based, more YouTube than Twitter. Four years ago, Twitter bots became the topic de guerre regarding election 2016. The technological ability to replicate people and their speech on social media, also known as computational propaganda, became the fixation of those seeking to defend the election as the American public learned more each month of the fake accounts operated by the St. Petersburg-based IRA and psychographic targeting and associated bots from Cambridge Analytica that manipulated perceptions on Twitter.  Twitter bots took on an allure of their own and hashtag wars ensued well into the 2018 midterm elections—some foreign, but mostly domestic. But by 2019 and through 2020, influence operations core medium changed—Twitter bots were less effective, more policed and less engaging. Furthermore, the most-amplified website URLs leading into 2016 were fringe websites or Kremlin outlets pushing propaganda or disinformation into American audiences; in 2020, the most-cited URLs in foreign influence monitoring lists our teams watched pointed to one place: YouTube. The availability of user-generated video of increasingly higher quality has caused platforms like YouTube, Bitchute, Vimeo, TikTok and Instagram to become far more valuable for the purposes of influence operations. The visual medium is more engaging, and can easily be spread on high-volume dissemination platforms like Twitter, closed Facebook groups, or WhatsApp. Today, computational video propaganda continues to grow and will increasingly merge with synthetic audio and video media to create a far more effective and mind-shifting influence operation. This shift in medium requires a commensurate move in the malign influence research conducted by academia. Studies of Twitter are easy to do, with openly available data and triage, but from 2021 on, the field of social media malign influence needs to focus on new mediums of audio and video—a much tougher research challenge.

Agents-of-influence moved from the shadows to the forefront. Investigations into election 2016 revealed that one-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort routinely communicated and met with Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik. The secret rendezvous brought the Mueller investigation to a fever pitch and ignited America’s greatest fears: Had the U.S. presidency been infiltrated by a foreign power? Just days after Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation closed, President Trump pursued a quid pro quo with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for the expressed purpose of launching an investigation into his rival—then-former Vice President Joe Biden—and Biden’s family. An impeachment trial ensued, but this only brought into the open what had been more hidden four years earlier. From early 2019 up to Election Day in 2020, President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani operated with and through Ukrainian Russia-tied actors seeking to influence the U.S. election. Giuliani’s actions included meeting with Ukrainian MP Andrei Derkach and propagating Derkach’s “NABU Leaks” campaign that targeted then-former Vice President Joe Biden and laundered narratives into the U.S. information space. Derkach was a known Kremlin-aligned figure in Ukraine who attended Moscow’s FSB academy, formerly Dzerzhinsky Higher School of the KGB. This malign foreign influence campaign, however, was repeatedly promoted online and even in some U.S. media outlets, leading to the Trump administration’s own Treasury Department to designate Derkach in September 2020 for election interference efforts and reveal him to be an active Russian agent “for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services.” This designation further led to social media company takedowns of the NABU Leaks campaign and connected social media accounts online. Ultimately, in four years, Russian agents went from secretive meetings with Trump officials to overt support, openly advancing a smear campaign against a U.S. candidate.

Russia remained the most prolific manipulator, Iran was most antagonistic, and China didn’t show up. The Kremlin demonstrated early on, immediately after the 2018 midterms, its intent to influence the 2020 presidential election. By spring of 2019, Russia had clearly shown its preferences for who might win in 2020 and Facebook’s monthly takedown reports revealed the depth and breadth of the Kremlin efforts to elevate President Trump and denigrate then-former Vice President Joe Biden. This campaign to boost Trump and denigrate Biden endured all the way through Election Day, and it largely failed.

The surprise actor of the 2020 election was not Russia, but Iran. The assassination of IRGC General Qassim Sulemaini did not ignite a broader Middle East war as many had worried, but it did accelerate growing cyber and social media antagonism from Tehran. Iran’s social media influence operations suffered some closures as well—Facebook and Twitter both announced content removal tied to Iranian operations targeting the election. However, Tehran knew it would not be able to switch or influence voting in the U.S. Its social media and website efforts were sloppy, easily detected and not particularly effective in gaining U.S. engagement. Instead, the Iranians became provocateurs, inciting online pain to create real world angst causing friction for the Trump administration. Just before the election, in October, the FBI attributed the false email intimidation campaign posing as Proud Boys back to Iran. 

Later, in the closing days of election and immediately after the vote, the U.S. government connected Iran to a website called “Enemies of the People.” The site appeared as a targeting list of U.S. government officials and other private citizens who were perceived and presented on the site as opponents of then-President Donald Trump. In both cases, Iran apparently sought to incite conflict and panic in the U.S. at a tumultuous time—they sought to antagonize the election more than influence it. 

China, meanwhile, received a consistent drumbeat of blame headed into 2020. While there were Chinese state-sponsored and social media campaigns underway in the lead-up to the election, these operations spent little time discussing November’s contest. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) focused its malign influence and disinformation efforts on global policy issues with a laser-like focus on COVID-19, pushing blame afar and minimizing their responsibility as the source of the deadly, life-changing pandemic. Alongside COVID-19, and instead of the 2020 presidential election, China spilled ink and tweets maligning the protests in Hong Kong and advancing denialism over its internment of Uighers in China’s Xinjiang region.

Overall, the only influence America failed to defend against in election 2020 was from itself. With domestic disinformation and conspiracies running rampant online and even making their way into mainstream American media, the aftermath of the 2020 election saw chaos and confusion, culminating with the violent insurrection in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Looking ahead, there are many challenges to tackle, including nimble malign foreign actors we must continue to contend with and new mediums more difficult to moderate than the last. Our domestic information space, however, rests at the helm of this broader challenge, and America must now make sense of its own malign influence forces to further protect its elections from all enemies foreign and domestic.