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Introduction of the Foreign Influence Election 2020 Project
The Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), headquartered in Philadelphia, Pa., launched the Foreign Influence Election 2020 (FIE 2020) project in the summer of 2019. The project seeks to protect the 2020 U.S. presidential election from foreign interference by filling gaps in data, knowledge and understanding of how foreign powers seek to degrade American institutions, elected officials and presidential candidates.
The Challenge Headed into the 2020 Election
The Russian Federation’s influence operations and interference in U.S. elections continues five years after FPRI researchers and their colleagues spotted the Kremlin’s attack on the 2016 presidential election. Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Director Christopher Wray, NSA Director General Paul Nakasone and former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller have all reiterated that Putin’s interference in American elections continues unabated. More frightening has been the rapid duplication of Kremlin influence operations by authoritarian regimes far and wide. As the 2020 presidential election approaches, Russia will be only one of many countries seeking to tip the outcome in their favor. Chief among them are the Islamic Republic of Iran and People’s Republic of China, which have demonstrated a propensity for conducting information warfare around the world. Further complicating the situation are the actions of the 2020 candidates who often mistakenly assert alleged foreign influence against them or fail to understand how foreign countries may help or hurt them and their challengers.
Everyone wants to know what “The Russians” are up to in the 2020 presidential election, but outside researchers have limited data for analysis. Current analysis of foreign influence is heavily focused on social media data that is anecdotal and unattributed—difficult to parse from the vast uptick in domestic inauthentic behavior currently plaguing American politics. These social-media-only approaches seem to look for patterns of last election’s activity and fail to adapt to the continuing evolution in information manipulation and technology advances.
Finding the Russians, Iranians or Chinese interfering in the U.S. election takes a deliberate approach, one informed by what these countries are saying overtly about the election and the presidential campaigns. Last election, our team witnessed Russian influence operations targeting Senator Marco Rubio, and revealed this to him during Senate testimony. His office confirmed that afternoon they’d seen Russian hacking in 2016. Building on this same analytical approach from 2016, FPRI has assembled dozens of research interns from more than 20 universities to analyze English language state-sponsored propaganda from Russia (RT and Sputnik News), China (Global Times), and Iran (Press TV). This team has already analyzed more than 4,500 state-sponsored news articles related to the upcoming U.S. elections and will continue this process through election day on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.
Through this analysis, each of these articles is being coded in order to develop a foreign influence database measuring foreign country discussions vis-à-vis different candidates and U.S. electoral processes.
Leading up to the election, FPRI will produce regular reports and charts that illustrate and identify foreign adversaries’ sympathies and antagonisms toward the various presidential candidates, the themes and messages being advanced to U.S. audiences and the sources of information foreign adversaries are utilizing to subvert our democracy. These reports and charts will be accompanied by audio and video presentations in the coming months that describe the analysis, trends, insights and potential risks of foreign interference in the U.S. election.
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