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A nation must think before it acts.
November 15, 2020
Post by Rachel Chernaskey
It’s mid-November—Election Day has come and gone, but Americans still face a barrage of mis- and disinformation aimed at discrediting the 2020 election and its legitimacy. When the FIE 2020 project began in 2019, our team sought to understand the general thrust of any campaigns waged against the 2020 election by Russia, Iran and China by examining those countries’ state-sponsored media. And there have certainly been such interference efforts—be it through spreading disinformation, hacking attempts or email spoofs aimed at intimidating voters. Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2020 election were the loudest of the three authoritarian regimes, but even its efforts appear to have been unable to really break through the noise first created here at home.
Russia relied heavily on fake news and hack-and-leak operations to power its influence efforts aimed at the U.S. populace ahead of the 2016 presidential election, with its hacking feeding overt Kremlin narratives that the election had been rigged in favor of Hillary Clinton and against Senator Bernie Sanders. In 2020, the narrative remains—claims of a “rigged” election are regularly plastered across RT and Sputnik News—but the foundation for such claims has shifted. Instead of fake stories or selective hack-and-leak operations, Russian state-backed outlets largely relied on public statements made by U.S. officials themselves, oftentimes President Trump, to fuel the Kremlin’s message that U.S. elections and democracy are not to be trusted this time around.
For example, one article published by RT in May headlined “Donald Trump is completely right about mail-in ballots – they are the easiest route to a RIGGED ELECTION” ran through a list of alleged threats to the 2020 election’s integrity, including the oft-mentioned “Deep State,” and argued that election rigging would occur in the 2020 election given the U.S.’s shift to mail-in ballots in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another article published in June, “Trump warns of ‘RIGGED’ election, claims millions of mail-in ballots will be forged by foreign powers,” wrote that “the upcoming presidential election will be the scandal of the century, Donald Trump has predicted, stating that the use of mail-in ballots opens the door to widespread vote fraud as well as foreign meddling.” Still another—titled “‘We Are About to See Voter Fraud on a Level That Will Surpass All Others in 2020’, Activist Says”—cites Trump’s “expressed concerns that the system may equally offer opportunities to fake or dispute the election outcome.” In a more pointed example of Russian media amplifying domestic sentiments, Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s longtime associate and personal attorney, appeared on RT’s Going Underground on Election Day to discuss the election and criticize President-elect Joe Biden. These are but a few examples of many published in the past twelve months by Kremlin outlets seeking to interfere in the election by amplifying domestic narratives.
This effort by Kremlin outlets continues in the post-Election Day period. RT and Sputnik News have published numerous stories both amplifying and supporting Trump’s position that the election was rigged against him, that the results are illegitimate, and that there was widespread voter fraud in various states. No evidence has surfaced thus far to support such claims, and the related lawsuits filed by Trump haven’t seen success in court. To the contrary: A recent joint statement from U.S. election officials at the Department of Homeland Security and others said that the 2020 election was the “most secure in American history.” Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin refuses to congratulate President-elect Biden until “legal procedures” are resolved.
For the Kremlin, this year’s election issued both wins and losses. In 2020, Americans are more divided and distrustful of American systems, elections and institutions. The year’s COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide protests over racial injustice and presidential election all brought more divisions—and more opportunities for the Kremlin to amplify those divides among us. The U.S.’s retreat from the global stage in recent years presented clear opportunities for Russia in 2020 around the world, particularly in near-abroad countries currently in turmoil. But Russia’s preferred candidate also lost the U.S. presidency, and a President Biden will be less favorable toward Russia than Trump, who regularly praised Vladimir Putin and whose criticisms of NATO and isolationist foreign policy allowed for Russia to further pursue its strategic interests abroad with little or no pushback from the U.S.
To make up for those losses, Russia will surely continue to denigrate U.S. election integrity and democracy far past Inauguration Day. (To wit: Kremlin outlets are still publishing content aimed at sowing discord and disinformation surrounding the 2016 election.) Post-election 2020, we are still a nation divided, Americans living in different realities with severely siloed information diets. This is evidenced by the election results themselves: Save for a few key exceptions—like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin—voting trends across the country remained largely the same as 2016. Our divides are still ripe for exploitation by malign actors, and Russia will try to use such domestic divisions to its advantage in the coming months and years.
If Russia’s overt media coverage of the 2020 election taught us anything in the past year and a half, it’s that to combat foreign interference efforts in American elections and democracy at large, we must first change our trends at home: Agree on facts, fight pervasive disinformation and gravitation toward conspiracies, turn the temperature down on hyper-partisanship, and rebuild trust in expertise and institutions. These current trends won’t change quickly. But it’s imperative that they do, or interference by malign actors of all kinds in 2024 may be far simpler to execute.