Election Interference 2020

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If foreign interference is a near-certainty in this year’s contest, why aren’t we seeing any evidence of it? Or are we simply failing to recognize it?

It’s late July, and in the United States, we are making the final turn into the home stretch to the November 3 presidential election. As of Sunday, we’re at one hundred days to go and counting. All signs indicate there will be foreign interference in this year’s election, including congressional testimony from experts assuring us it’s happening as we speak.

As such, we may have expected by now to begin to see evidence of such interference. After all, in 2016, the Democratic National Committee hack had already happened (months earlier) by now and an initial tranche of documents purloined by Russian-controlled IRA had been already released via Wikileaks, wreaking overblown havoc in the press, the Democratic Party and the two remaining candidates’ camps.

Yet at present we do not have have significant reporting of such interference this year. This leaves us with three possible explanations:

  1. There won’t be interference this year;
  2. The interference hasn’t happened yet (but it’s coming);
  3. The interference is ongoing (but we’re simply not seeing it clearly).

Door No. 1 – No foreign election interference this year.

This first possibility – that there won’t be any foreign election interference this year – while logically possible, strikes me as unrealistic given all we know, so there is not much to discuss. If not at zero percent, the likelihood that Door No. 1 describes our reality are as close to zero as we might imagine. Given the upside stakes, the opportunity landscape and the fact that the White House has been openly signaling its warm receptivity to interference by repeatedly encouraging and soliciting it, malevolent foreign actors have every reason to try again to disrupt our election, and they have been given a green light to proceed all the way down the line.

It’s possible that an epic fail of an interference campaign would appear to us as if no interference had been attempted at all. Rudy Giuliani’s pet project, the Hunter Biden/Ukraine non-scandal is a variant of this category (except the plot was uncovered). The only reason the public knows about this now-aborted attempt is because an State Department employee blew the whistle on the corrupt scheme. Not coincidentally, the whistle-blowing also brought about the failure of the plot, as the malign actors dropped the project after Trump was impeached for his involvement.

There remains a possibility that this year’s other interference efforts have suffered or will suffer a similar fate (but with less fanfare and public exposure) of failing to materialize. Technically, that wouldn’t be a Door No. 1 scenario, but it would appear that way to the public.

Door No. 2 – The interference hasn’t happened yet.

As in 2016, the interference by malicious foreign actors in the 2020 election is expected to be multi-dimensional. Experts anticipate a social media component, a dark money component, and a ‘physical’ hacking of election systems component, to name but a few of the identified methods. With such a smorgasbord of options available, if the interference hasn’t happened yet, as this scenario posits, why hasn’t it and what are the implications of its absence?

Let’s begin by noting the actual hacking of equipment wouldn’t likely take place until election day or just before. For one, the equipment isn’t fully in place yet and will probably rolled out in phases, so there’s not as much to hack. In addition, if such an attack is attempted too early, it may provide too much lead time (from the hacker’s point of view) for U.S. officials to detect and thwart such an attack. All in all, it’s perhaps not surprising that we don’t yet see visible signs or reporting of any attacks on voting systems.

Setting aside attacks on voting systems for the moment, other forms of interference should be more visible; if not by now, then soon. Dark money can flow at any time and probably never stopped since that fateful day corporations became people, but it won’t likely have a public face in the absence of extraordinary investigative reporting. Social media manipulation, on the other hand, should be readily visible by now or soon enough in the days ahead.

Structurally, social media manipulation needs time to build and circulate to be effective, so as we cross the 100-days-to-election-day threshold, we might readily expect to be in the midst of perhaps several interference campaigns, yet there has been scant reporting of such activity. Which brings us to the final possibility…

Door No. 3 – The interference is already underway. 

The third possibility is that interference campaigns are already ongoing and we just don’t recognize it as such… yet. To examine this possibility, lets start with the recognition that there’s no immutable law or strict prerequisites mandating that interference precisely mirror past attacks. Russians et al. have had four unfettered years to improve upon old tactics and develop new techniques. Accordingly, we don’t have to limit our imagination to hacked party computers and leaked documents (although that was technically more of media manipulation operation than a social media operation per se).

There’s nothing that says election interference has to happen the same way it went down in 2016 at all. Interference is a growth industry; the possibilities and opportunities are bounded only by the limits of the offending actors’ imaginations. The landscape is wide open and evolving technology facilitates new techniques and methods at every turn.

That said, there is one aspect of the Wikileaks dumps that suggests such techniques will be repeated: The involvement of the mainstream press and television news media. Convincing mainstream media outlets to drop into scandal mode – reporting the initial scandal, then reporting the responses to the scandal, followed by responses to the responses, with sidebar stories discussing related topics arising out of the scandal – creates a self-perpetuating storm of coverage that penetrates the consciousness of the voting public in ways few other methods can accomplish. Scandals can bounce around the conservative media-sphere (Fox News, Breitbart, Daily Caller, etc.) for months without gaining an inch of traction in mainstream news media (see, e.g., Hunter Biden/Burisma). The self-perpetuating benefits of having a scandal gain traction in MSM (see, e.g., “but her emails…”) means we’re likely to see more of this type of interference for the foreseeable. As far as 2020 is concerned, however, we have yet to see evidence of any similarly styled operation.

One of the other tricks the Russian FSB-led team employed to notable effect in 2016 was to take advantage of existing points of friction in our society. We are famously vulnerable to such study by the very nature of our open and democratic society. This has the advantage (to the FSB) of not requiring them to have to come up with content from scratch that will generate conflict.

In 2016, the Russians looked at race relations in America and then tailored activities intending to heighten racial tension across the country. Protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder by police officers have awaken the conscience of the country in encouraging and sustained ways on the topic of race, but there’s no reason to think the evolving awareness of systemic disparities in the treatment of Black and brown Americans has taken race relations off the table for would-be election interference teams.

In  one notable example from 2016, FSB/GRU/SVR agitators organizing ersatz public protests on Facebook, and otherwise set up phony Facebook groups, and create an army of phony social media profiles, each eager to engage in provocative exchanges on social media.

To consider the possibility that interference campaigns are currently ongoing, we’re forced to ask ourselves what are those things, issues, or conflicts in public view right now that we’re going to later discover to have been part of some foreign influence campaign?

For this, I am at something of a loss. [To be sure, I am privy to no secret communication channel through which I’m gaining non-public insight (like a source inside a government agency, or similar). This is not a “special knowledge” conversation, it’s based on information derived from public domain sources and the application of a notion gleaned from Timothy Snyder’s Lesson No. 11 from On Tyranny: “Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles.”] But as to any obvious signs of Russian influence campaigns right now, I’m drawing a blank.

[As an aside, I have no doubts that Trump’s DHS/CBP/BOP goon squad’s antics in Portland have been heavily influenced by his seven (7) phone calls with Putin since March (!), as are his plans to deploy similar forces in other Democratic Party-led cities around the country. Trump clearly intends to leverage confrontations to his advantage in in the upcoming election. This form of “interference” is outside the scope of the present discussion, however, though it may be the subject of a future column (including the possibility of a martial law/suspend the election scenarios).]

There are a few topics currently bouncing around social media (with some associated coverage by news outlets) that we might later discover to have benefited from Russian or other state actor amplification. Such candidates include the fringe conspiracy universe of Qanon, which has fairly exploded in the last several months, the incel movement and/or the oddball if decidedly more violent Boogaloo revolutionaries. None of the above have been directly linked to Russia in any reporting I have encountered, but none would surprise me to have had a Russian influence/amplification component should we later come to learn of it.

Overall though, there is a dearth of obvious targets for our suspicions of Russian election interference to land upon. Given that we’ve now entered the home stretch towards the November 3 election, the absence of evidence of such attacks is worrisome in its own right. Given how unlikely it is that this election will be free of foreign interference, our present inability to spot such influence raises the specter that influence campaigns are well underway and somehow flying under the radar.

Ultimately, all probabilities suggest that if foreign interference campaigns are not already underway, they’re on the way. That such operations are not readily identifiable and remain obscured or oblique should make us all a little more nervous each day we step closer to Election Day.

***

July 29, 2020

As I retired for the evening after posting the above, I had a thought worthy of consideration (or mention, at least): What about Coronavirus disinformation, the various conspiracy theories and phony “cures” currently circulating aggressively on social media and in the fetid bogs of the right-wing news ecosphere? Could the spiking interest and dissemination of COVID-19 disinformation have a Russian influence component to it?

I awoke the following morning to reporting from the Associated Press  confirming, at least in part, the very notion.

 

Following the AP reporting, the New York Times ran a story based on the same recently declassified information. Russia has been actively promoting COVID disinformation.

The pattern is the same, a curious spike in the trafficking of disinformation on a particular topic, untethered to any news event or other explanation for the increase in volume, and so is Russia’s unseen hand, pulling strings from behind the scenes.

The question here is why? Why is Russia doing this and specifically, is there any connection to the upcoming U.S. presidential election sufficient to qualify this as Russian election interference? If there is a connection, its not obvious. This seems more like Russia just being a dick, stirring things up to sow confusion and chaos in its longtime adversary, sometimes enemy, the United States. This may simply be an effort to weaken the U.S. for its own sake rather than because they believe such chaos favors Donald Trump in the election.

Working with limited information from the wrong end of the telescope, as it were — out here in the cheap seats reserved for Joe and Jane Citizen, without so much as a blue checkmark between them — there is a danger of falling prey to paranoia while scanning the information horizon for threats. We mustn’t see Russians lurking in the shadows of every event for which the origins are shrouded in fog or otherwise not readily apparent.

Based on the recently-declassified intelligence, we now have confirmation that Russia is actively amplifying COVID-19 disinformation. We just don’t know as yet to what end their actions have been intended.

This leaves unanswered the basic question at the heart of this conversation: If Russia is actively interfering in the 2020 presidential election, why isn’t more evidence of it visible at this point, with less than 100 days to go?

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