Disinformation, Division, and Distraction:
How American Adversaries Interfere in the U.S. Election
written by Christian Blank, Georgetown Security Studies M.A. Candidate
As election day draws closer, the steady stream of political ads and targeted messaging campaigns intensifies. But just last week, threatening emails sent to Democratic voters raised red flags. According to the Director of National Intelligence and FBI Director, Iran issued these threats posing as pro-Trump far-right groups like the Proud Boys in an effort to undermine confidence in the democratic process. Such efforts are not new, but the landscape has changed. The U.S. electorate is under siege by foreign interference utilizing disinformation, division, and distraction and the challenge is only growing in complexity.
Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. general election thrust the issue of coordinated foreign interference into the public spotlight. Moscow’s meddling included probing state voter databases, hacking Democratic and Republican campaigns, and even staging rallies in swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania. Although voting infrastructure vulnerabilities exist, Russian interference efforts primarily target the U.S. electorate. These methods seek to achieve what New York Times correspondent David Sanger refers to as a perception hack which targets minds. Election interference continues today by amplifying partisan divides, driving distrust and eroding the democratic process.
Instead of grouping together foreign actors seeking to interfere in the U.S. election, the United States must recognize each actor separately in order to better understand their goals. While Russia seeks to amplify partisan divides, China and Iran primarily focus their interference efforts on promoting their own worldview and drawing attention away from their domestic controversies. China’s positioning as a great power competitor allows it to utilize a wide range of capabilities outside of election interference in contrast to Russia’s reliance on asymmetric warfare. Chinese interference objectives have been emphasized by their efforts to pass blame for the coronavirus pandemic. Iranian efforts seek to carve out regional influence by pushing back against U.S. global hegemony.
As usership of social media platforms increases, foreign actors gain access to a wider audience. Fake accounts operated by employees of Russian organizations like the Internet Research Agency (IRA) gain the trust of American consumers by posting relatable content that escalates into hyperpartisan messaging. Superconnectors then spread these messages and stoke partisan fears in both liberal and conservative audiences. Even when these actors are revealed, the damage is already done. The interference degrades trustworthiness and prompts individuals to join their network of disinformation by spreading false narratives.
Along the lines of unrestricted warfare, as described by Chinese Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui in 1999, adversaries no longer compete on a traditional battlefield. With expanded foreign election interference, the national security apparatus continues to collect a growing basket of responsibilities. Foreign disinformation campaigns will continue long after the 2020 U.S. general election. Seeking to undermine the democratic process, adversaries are attempting to weaponize freedom of speech. In order to protect this freedom, American citizens will need to improve media literacy and awareness while the national security community identifies and eliminates foreign interference efforts.
While evidence of votes themselves being changed has not yet come forward, the ability to erode trust in the democratic process may prove to be much more impactful. In 2016, Russia posed the greatest threat to the United States through foreign election interference. In 2020, American partisan leaders have used rhetoric that questions the trustworthiness of the democratic process. In a world filled with digital pollution, American leaders must fight through the noise and reinforce the democratic process.
· Statement by NCSC Director William Evanina: Election Threat Update for the American Public: https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/press-releases/item/2139-statement-by-ncsc-director-william-evanina-election-threat-update-for-the-american-public
· How Russia Pulled Off the Biggest Election Hack in U.S. History (Thomas Rid): https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a49791/russian-dnc-emails-hacked/
· The Agency (Adrian Chen): https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/07/magazine/the-agency.html
· Russia Poses Greater Election Threat Than Iran, Many U.S. Officials Say:https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/22/us/politics/russia-election-interference-hacks.html
Christian Blank currently studies at Georgetown University as a Master of Arts candidate in the Security Studies Program. He has worked with the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German political foundation and think tank, serving as the Program Manager of Washington Office since 2017. Prior to his work with the Hanns Seidel Foundation, he completed a Robert Schuman traineeship with the European Parliament Liaison Office to the U.S. Congress in Washington and at the European Parliament Headquarters in Brussels covering a portfolio of migration, counterterrorism, data, privacy, and civil liberties. Christian has prior experience in the private sector working with Booz Allen Hamilton on their Wargaming Team. He earned his undergraduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in Political Science, International Studies, and German with a Certificate in European Studies.