Four years ago, Russian operatives used a series of “active measures” to hack campaigns, spread disinformation and sow discord in an effort to sway the election in favor of President Donald Trump. That’s according to a bipartisan Senate report and former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
As Nov. 3 approaches, one question is on most everyone’s mind: Is Russia at it again?
PolitiFact consulted experts, news reports, and publicly available intelligence from the federal government and social media platforms to get a sense of how foreign actors are trying to interfere in 2020. The consensus: It’s not just Russia — and the bigger threat is much closer to home.
“From my perspective, the vast majority of false content that’s election-related is still coming from Americans themselves,” said Cindy Otis, a former CIA officer and a disinformation and cybersecurity expert.
On Sept. 17, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that Russia was again trying to interfere in an American election.
“We certainly have seen very active efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020 through what I would call more the maligned foreign influence side of things: social media, use of proxies, state media, online journals, etc.,” Wray said during a House committee hearing.
In the lead-up to the 2016 election, the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked “troll farm,” carried out a social media campaign “designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States,” according to the Mueller report. It created fake social media accounts, fabricated protests in the U.S. and published false news stories on the internet.
That kind of meddling never really stopped. In 2020, Wray said he is most concerned about the “steady drumbeat of misinformation” that’s aimed at making Americans doubt the integrity of their votes. Other targets of misinformation are former Vice President Joe Biden and what Wray called the “anti-Russian establishment.”
On Sept. 10, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions against four “Russia-linked election interference actors.” One of them was Andrii Derkach, a pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian who the agency said had been part of “foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.”
Derkach, whom the agency classified as “an active Russian agent for over a decade,” promoted discredited corruption allegations about Biden. Politico reported that Derkach distributed packets of anti-Biden information to Republican lawmakers investigating the former vice president for his dealings in Ukraine.
Wray’s comments and the Treasury Department’s sanctions are the latest indications that foreign governments appear to be meddling in the 2020 presidential contest — but it’s not just Russia.
Officials are also concerned about China and Iran. In an Aug. 7 statement, William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said the agency was primarily concerned about “ongoing and potential activity by China, Russia, and Iran.”
“Many foreign actors have a preference for who wins the election, which they express through a range of overt and private statements; covert influence efforts are rarer,” Evanina said.
According to unclassified intelligence, China and Iran prefer that Trump is not re-elected, while Russia is using a range of tactics to denigrate Biden, whom the state views as anti-Russian. While Russia and China appear to be relying primarily on public rhetoric and pressure on political figures, Iran’s efforts “probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-U.S. content,” Evanina said.
To what extent have those warnings come to fruition so far? It’s tough to say.
“We’ve looked at 35 allegations of foreign interference in 2020 so far,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “There is a lot of noise around these activities, but public evidence is relatively scarce.”
Silicon Valley has reported a drip, drip, drip of election meddling.
Microsoft on Sept. 10 said it had detected unsuccessful cyberattacks on people and groups associated with the 2020 presidential candidates.
“The activity we are announcing today makes clear that foreign activity groups have stepped up their efforts targeting the 2020 election as had been anticipated, and is consistent with what the U.S. government and others have reported,” the company wrote.
Cyberattacks were one of the primary ways that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. In June 2016, the Democratic National Committee announced that Russian hackers had compromised its computer servers. According to the Mueller report, the hackers, who were part of the Russian intelligence service, then leaked compromising information about Hillary Clinton over the next few months in an effort to delegitimize her candidacy for president.
The same hackers were behind some of the cyberattacks identified by Microsoft.
In its assessment — which is far more detailed than anything provided by U.S. intelligence agencies — the company wrote that “activity groups” in Russia, China and Iran targeted organizations, advocacy groups and people associated with both the Trump and Biden campaigns. The same Russian group was identified in the Mueller report as the primary organization responsible for the DNC hacks in 2016.
“The majority of these attacks were detected and stopped by security tools built into our products,” Microsoft said.
That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen again.
“What I’m afraid of is more hacking,” said Darren Linvill, an associate professor and state-sponsored disinformation expert at Clemson University. “I’m very much afraid of that sort of activity moving into October.”
Meanwhile, other technology companies have focused their efforts on identifying and removing disinformation networks.
Running off of a tip from the FBI, Facebook said Sept. 1 it removed a small network of pages and accounts created by Russian operatives who had lured journalists into writing articles critical of Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. The articles appeared on a fake, left-leaning news website called Peace Data. The apparent goal was to undermine support for the Democratic candidate among liberal voters, according to a report from Grapika, a social media research firm that works with Facebook to identify disinformation campaigns.
Some see those takedowns — among more than 100 that Facebook has made since 2017 — as wins for the company. Others chalk them up to drops in the ocean of potential election disinformation on the platform.
“(Peace Data) only accounted for a few thousand Facebook likes over the course of the campaign,” Brooking said. “Something we’re always on guard against is putting so much emphasis on foreign interference. You miss the bigger picture.”
Teenagers posted things like “Don’t trust Dr. Fauci” and mail-in ballots “will lead to fraud for this election” on their social media feeds. They appeared to be real posts from Trump supporters.
But the Washington Post reported that the accounts were part of a disinformation network that bore a striking resemblance to how Russian agents interfered in 2016. This time, the accounts were run by Americans.
Turning Point Action, an affiliate of Turning Point USA, a conservative group with a history of spreading false and misleading information, ran the trolling operation. It paid teens to publish thousands of identical or similar social media posts targeting Democratic politicians and news organizations.
After the Post exposed the network, Facebook and Twitter removed several accounts associated with it.
In 2020, most election-related disinformation appears to be made in the USA.
“As we’ve conducted our enforcement actions over the past several years at Facebook, about half of these operations we see using these deceptive tactics are domestic in nature,” David Agranovich, Facebook’s global threat disruption lead, said during a July event organized by the Brookings Institution. “We’re seeing that trend increase as time goes on.”
Back in July, Facebook said it had removed nine networks of accounts, pages and groups, including some in the U.S. More than half of those networks focused on domestic audiences.
One network of Facebook accounts, pages and Instagram accounts was attributed to Republican political consultant and Trump associate Roger Stone. An earlier network, which Facebook removed in May, was run by a cluster of users who promoted the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory.
Social media companies tend to have more aggressive policies against foreign meddling.
“For social media platforms, it’s a much harder thing for them to tackle American-generated disinformation or false information, even coordinated efforts like that,” Otis said of the Turning Point Action network. “They can claim that it’s a personal political opinion.”
Some inspiration comes from President Donald Trump.
Trump has repeatedly made false or misleading statements about the integrity of mail-in ballots, which more voters are expected to use this year as the coronavirus continues to rage. Trump — whose campaign has not taken a pledge against using disinformation — has repeatedly shared manipulated videos. And he has cast doubt on the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in 2016.
“He has every incentive to shape the public perception of the foreign meddling in a way that’s to his advantage, in a way that I think could amplify the effects even more,” said Jessica Weeks, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Over the past four years, social media companies have spent billions of dollars hiring staff, fortifying their defenses and developing new policies to prevent 2016-style interference. They’ve started to release consistent public reports about disinformation campaigns.
Still, there’s some doubt as to whether tech platforms’ public statements paint a complete picture of what’s going on behind the scenes.
“While those reports are certainly useful and they’re very well done, they aren’t the full story — and they’re only what Facebook wants to release,” Linvill said of reports like the Peace Data takedown. “I’m sure there’s all kinds of things that Facebook doesn’t release.”
Given the uncertainty, voters should be on the lookout for disinformation in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Otis said most disinformation tries to appeal to people’s emotions, so the most important thing you can do before sharing something is to pause and do a quick investigation. If you can’t verify a claim you see on social media, the best thing to do is avoid sharing it.
The effect of election interference can be tough to measure, but it could have an adverse impact on the vote.
“The victim of all this isn’t one political party or another — it’s American voters and their influence on the democratic process,” said Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center.