Foreign election interference: Is the United States prepared?

What’s happening

After the 2016 presidential election, major investigations were launched to understand the extent of Russia’s efforts to affect the outcome. The question of how much of an impact, if any, Russian meddling had on the result is a matter of debate. But intelligence officials have linked Russian actors to a sprawling influence campaign that included hacks of Democratic Party officials and a wave of fake news stories created by so-called troll farms with the goal of helping Donald Trump win the election.

Sanctions and criminal charges for dozens of Russian nationals that resulted from those investigations haven’t been enough to deter Moscow from interfering in the 2020 race. In September, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the agency had seen “very active” measures by Russia to tip the 2020 election in Trump’s favor. Russia is the most prolific in its efforts, but it’s not alone. China and Iran have also sought to meddle in the election, intelligence officials say.

Like so many other issues, the discussion of foreign interference in the U.S. election has become deeply polarized. Trump’s continued effort to discredit the Russia investigation has led many conservatives to doubt conclusions about the breadth of Moscow’s meddling. Last month, a whistleblower accused the head of the Department of Homeland Security of instructing staff to stop reporting on Russian interference and instead focus on China and Iran. Democrats have said the Trump administration is dramatically overstating the scale of Iranian and Chinese meddling to mask the extent of Russia’s campaign to help Trump win reelection. 

Why there’s debate

There’s little doubt that Russia and, to a lesser extent, other nations are attempting to influence the election. What’s unclear is whether they will be successful. U.S. intelligence agencies, social media companies and the American public are much more primed to combat foreign meddling than they were four years ago, many experts say. So far, there have been no major hacks as there were in 2016, and the odds of U.S. election systems being compromised — to a level where actual votes might be changed — are extremely small, defense officials say.

That leaves foreign adversaries reduced to what may be the least effective tool in their arsenal: disinformation. Russia is continuing its campaign to flood social media sites with stories that may be harmful to Joe Biden, but the push is likely to fall flat after years of attention that have made Americans more skeptical of what they see online, some experts argue. 

Others are less confident. Foreign interference has become more sophisticated over the past four years, they say, and may take a form that members of the public and social media companies aren’t prepared for. The country may be even more vulnerable to disinformation this year, some argue, because confidence in the integrity of the election is already dangerously low. Foreign adversaries could also take advantage of any delay caused by the high number of mail-in ballots or possible legal challenges. In the intense days or weeks when the result of the race may be unknown, the American public would be extremely vulnerable to foreign influence, experts fear.

Another group argues that foreign meddling is a small concern when compared with the interference that’s coming from within the United States. Russia’s primary aim is to promote distrust in American democracy. Trump’s persistent false claims that mail-in ballots are vulnerable to fraud and his refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power have done more to accomplish that goal that any foreign adversary could ever dream of, critics say.

Perspectives

Confidence in the integrity of our elections is already extremely low

“Ultimately, the success of foreign interference operations depends in large part on the receptivity of the societies they seek to influence. On that score, Americans are doing their adversaries’ work for them. Foreign actors can easily cast doubt on democratic institutions when domestic actors do the same.” — Laura Rosenberger, Foreign Affairs

The U.S. may be particularly vulnerable in the days after the election

“Voting by mail is absolutely going to be a minefield for misinformation in 2020. The number of Americans voting by mail is expected to double, and that could mean states have an overwhelming number of mail-in ballots to count — which means it’s unlikely that some states will know the final results on election night, or even the day after. This delay — which isn’t really a delay, just due diligence — could give election misinformation the opportunity to fester.” — Jen Kirby, Vox

The unique circumstances of the 2020 election elevate the risk

“The chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the activation of new adversaries like China have elevated the threat of election manipulation even higher. With uncertainty around the viability of in-person voting, questions about voting by mail, and calls to delay the election, there can be no doubt that foreign actors are looking to leverage the confusion and upheaval caused by COVID-19 and civil unrest to disrupt our democratic process.” — Sinan Aral, Boston Globe

Foreign disinformation efforts don’t actually influence voters’ decisions

“In point of fact, what our intel agencies are whipping us into a frenzy over is but a drop in an ocean of information, much of it false, in which we constantly swim.” — Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review

Trump has done far more to sow doubt about the U.S. election than any adversary could

“The effect of one Trump press conference or tweet in shaping opinions, even behaviors, can be monumental. The most a few thousand Russian-directed bot accounts might achieve is to get a Twitter hashtag trending for a few hours.” — Russian disinformation researcher Aric Toler to New Yorker

Big Tech isn’t ready to deal with a concentrated interference effort

“America has given social media giants ample time to figure out how to stop their platforms from being used to sow political discord. Yet we find ourselves stuck in an even more precarious situation than 2016 — not only is the possibility of a stolen election real, democracy itself is vulnerable to a potential heist.” — Martin Skladany, Wired

Russia’s ability to influence U.S. elections in grossly overstated

“We need to recognize that a myopic focus on ‘Russian meddling’ is preventing a much deeper analysis of what is happening right here at home.” — Claire Wardle, Lawfare

The U.S. is in a better position to combat foreign interference this year

“The United States is undoubtedly more prepared this time around for the type of foreign interference the country faced four Novembers ago, in large part because we know what to be prepared for.” — Editorial, Washington Post

Trump is not doing the work he needs to do to protect our election

“Today in our running list of 99 reasons Trump must not serve a second term is a related offense: He has failed to guard the 2020 election from interference by Russia and others.” — Editorial, New York Daily News

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