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Yes, Russia is interfering in the 2020 election

It wants to cause chaos, again. But it’s also learned some lessons from 2016.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin sitting at a desk during a videoconference meeting.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during a videoconference meeting at his suburban Novo-Ogaryovo residence, on August 20, 2020.
Alexei Nikolsky/TASS via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

There’s an editor’s note at the top of a recent post on Larry Krakow’s blog.

“Note to my readers: I had this piece published elsewhere and it is no longer online,” it says at the top of his article, titled “The Hidden Corruption of the CARES Act.” “Sadly, it was a victim of a form of censorship that we can discuss at a later date. For now, understand how important it is to protect the right to free speech and a free press.”

The “elsewhere” it was originally published was a little-known website called PeaceData, an upstart progressive global news site, purportedly based primarily in Romania, with a mission “to shed light on the global issues and raise awareness about corruption, environmental crisis, abuse of power, armed conflicts, activism, and human rights.”

Krakow, a 48-year-old butcher from Queens in New York, had recently started his own blog as he recovered from Covid-19. Spend five days in hell, with a fever bouncing between 103 and 104 degrees, and a minute passed out on the bathroom floor, and you find you have some things to say.

As Krakow set out to promote his own writing, he came across PeaceData. This spring, he reached out to Jake Sullivan, who identified himself as the site’s editor-in-chief. “‘Great site — kudos, I’m a fellow blogger, here’s my blog,’ Krakow said he told him. “And they got back to me and they said, ‘Wow, this is the kind of content that we’re looking for.’”

“Next thing you know,” he added, “we were doing email exchanges and I was started writing for them.”

But PeaceData wasn’t quite what it advertised itself to be. On September 1, Facebook and Twitter announced that, acting on a tip from the FBI, they had taken down a network of accounts connected to PeaceData.

The accounts, according to social media companies, were linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the notorious Russian troll farm that played a role in the Russian government’s 2016 election interference operation. (PeaceData, meanwhile, claims they were shut down by “corrupt forces” attempting to silence free speech, including the FBI, the NSA, CNN, and the New York Times.)

“Looking back on it, there are definitely some red flags that I noticed,” Jack Delaney, another freelancer who’d been unwittingly recruited to write for the site, told me. For instance, a profile picture for Alex Lacusta, the PeaceData editor Delaney worked with, also looked sort of similar to another editor for the site, Albert Popescu. Their social media accounts were also made pretty recently. And there were some odd grammatical errors in emails Delaney got from Lacusta.

According to a report from the research firm Graphika, the profile pictures of Lacusta and Popescu — the editors Delaney thought looked a little bit too alike — were avatars generated by artificial intelligence.

“At the time,” Delaney told me, “I just chalked it up to coincidence, or, you know, that this was a young organization that was maybe a little sloppier and more disorganized than other places I’ve worked with.”

Delaney is still trying to wrap his head around the whole thing. It’s not a good feeling, certainly, to find out you were working for a Russian-linked operation. Yet he bristles at the framing that PeaceData was spreading misinformation. “I wasn’t writing stuff I didn’t believe in. I was writing stuff I believed in,” Delaney said. “And, you know, I think, broadly, it was more of attack — or is more meant to discredit independent media, critical independent media, left media.”

Krakow, too, is skeptical. He worries that shutting down PeaceData is also an attempt to shut down writers and thinkers like him. “I don’t think you can be ambiguous about free speech,” he said. “You cannot, because the biggest threat to freedom is when that freedom to speak your mind is taken away. Because then who becomes the arbiter of content? The state does.”

Discrediting democratic institutions, including free speech and freedom of the press, is all part of Russia’s election interference playbook. Yet PeaceData offers an intriguing glimpse into how Russian election meddling is evolving. The trolls and bots of 2016 are being replaced by outsourced writers, including, in this case, Americans. Obviously, fake news is being swapped out for articles with a particular slant or point of view.

Those are innocuous on their own, but they become less so as they find an audience and filter through the online ecosystem. People read and furiously reshare, their blood pressure spiking over what the corrupt politicians on the other side are up to now. The stories migrate to more Facebook groups or more extreme websites — Delaney said he found one of his articles on a site known for spreading pro-Russia propaganda — or Facebook groups, placed alongside more overt propaganda. Now that article is a weapon.

What makes this so dangerous isn’t that it’s particularly skillful. It’s that America, right now, is primed for it. The country’s hardened partisan divides, growing distrust in expertise, and distinct media silos are chipping away at a functioning democracy. Russia is taking advantage of what the United States has already created.

“When there are cracks in the edifice, then it’s easier to break things,” Glenn Carle, a former CIA officer and national security expert, told me. “And so the Russians will build on that.”

Russia is not squandering this opportunity. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in August that Moscow “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’”

Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that “we have seen very active — very active — efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020,” adding that, as the intelligence community assessed, those efforts are focused on denigrating Biden.

The Kremlin is also using pro-Russian Ukrainians to try to spread misleading information about Biden, some of which has been amplified by the president and his allies. Russian government hackers have also targeted at least 200 groups tied to US elections, according to a recent report from Microsoft.

Intelligence officials have also suggested China and Iran are interfering in US politics, but there are questions about whether their activities rival Russia’s — Democrats say no — and experts say their aims are different. Even more worrying, a recent Department of Homeland Security whistleblower has accused the Trump administration of purposely downplaying the Russia threat because of Trump’s discomfort with it.

There’s a lot we don’t know publicly about Russia’s activities, but what we do know, and can see online, shows that Moscow is taking advantage of a bitter and divisive election year.

A recap of what Russia did in 2016

Russia’s goal is to create chaos. That was true in 2016, and it’s true now. “Their first goal is disruption,” James Andrew Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, told me. “They’re doing really well.”

The chaos has a point: Russia wants to create confusion and distrust. This undermines faith in American institutions and hampers their ability to function. It increases disillusionment in American democracy, boosting the sense that the system is rigged and isn’t serving the people. This makes the US government a less effective actor at home and abroad.

Russia executed this campaign in 2016 by ratcheting up tensions online, and by using government hackers to steal materials and then leak them to distract and divide.

The Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm,” posted politically charged content, and bought ads that elevated those issues on social media sites. Operatives posing as US-based activists or entities created social media pages to exploit ideological and racial fissures, and some of these accounts were amplified by US figures. Sometimes activities spilled offline, too, with trolls organizing protests and counterprotests.

Special counsel Robert Mueller examined the activities of the Internet Research Agency as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and so did a Republican-led Senate committee.

Mueller’s team indicted 12 Russian nationals who allegedly worked for the IRA, and another, Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef,” whom prosecutors allege funded the operation. (Mueller did not find any evidence that Americans coordinated or conspired with the IRA.)

Hackers tied to Russian military intelligence (known as the GRU) also infiltrated the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). They stole internal emails and other documents, which they then published online, first through fake personas and then through WikiLeaks. The first big document dump came in July 2016, right before the start of the Democratic Convention, and attempted to create disunity among Democrats.

GRU-linked operatives also targeted Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, and released his emails. That document dump came on October 7, 2016, the same day Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape became public.

The Senate committee also found that Russia hacked into voter and registration databases and state election infrastructure in all 50 states in 2016. There’s no evidence any votes were changed, though in some instances, including in Illinois, the committee found that Russia could have deleted or changed voter data if it wanted to.

Mueller’s team investigated the ties between Trump campaign officials and Russia. Mueller and a sweeping Senate investigation both documented numerous contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians linked to the Kremlin, but ultimately did not find evidence of conspiracy or coordination.

Yet the Russia investigation, and Trump’s assault on it, helped transform a foreign adversary’s attack on US elections into a partisan issue, and has muddled the core fact that both Republicans and Democrats initially agreed on: that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and had designs on 2018, 2020, and beyond.

That’s a victory that perhaps Russia couldn’t have initially dreamed of — that their attack on the US would also become a topic that is still tearing the US apart.

But Russia did interfere in the 2016 US election. And, really, it’s been interfering ever since.

“For them, this isn’t episodic,” Lewis said. “Sometimes Americans have trouble realizing that — certainly for the Russians — they think we’re in a fight and it’s ongoing. And it’s persistent.”

America is already doing a lot of Russia’s work for it this time around

Russian disinformation aims to wear down its consumers, to get them to question what’s real and what’s not, so they just give up and assume everything is already rigged — the exact opposite of what makes a healthy democracy. The disinformation is also designed to emotionally manipulate, to confirm the biases you already have.

The thing is, America is already doing this to itself.

One segment of the country knows Russia interfered in 2016; another thinks it’s all a made-up “witch hunt.” One segment of the country believes the election will be stolen by mail-in voter fraud; another fears the Trump administration may sabotage mail-in voting through the United States Postal Service. One segment of the country is still quarantining; another thinks Covid-19 is a hoax made up to hurt Trump.

“Russia doesn’t need to create a lot of the same content that it created in 2016 because it’s being created in the United States, by Americans,” Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation fellow at the Wilson Center and author of How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict, told me.

Russia can amplify what Americans have put out there, just spreading even further the conspiracies and manipulative content made in the US. And America is particularly vulnerable when even the president’s own Twitter account is a major vector for disinformation.

Take Trump’s claims that mail-in voting is rife with fraud. (It’s not.) He has accused Democrats of trying to “steal the election” through mail-in voting. He has encouraged voters in North Carolina to vote twice, which is against the law. Twitter has flagged his misleading tweets about voter fraud. Those lies get blasted through pro-Trump media and filter down to his supporters.

Trump has already seeded the idea that if he loses, the US election is rigged. That is also what Russia wants people to believe.

Which is why the discussion of voting by mail has become a target for foreign influence, according to a memo from the Department of Homeland Security released in September. “We assess that Russia is likely to continue amplifying criticisms of vote-by-mail and shifting voting processes amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine public trust in the electoral process,” the memo states.

In the primaries, Russian state media and proxy websites elevated stories about problems with ballot delivery. In mid-August — just as Trump was increasing his attacks on mail-in voting — Russian state media and proxy websites “criticized the integrity of expanded and universal vote-by-mail, claiming ineligible voters could receive ballots due to out-of-date voter rolls, leaving a vast amount of ballots unaccounted for and vulnerable to tampering.”

Again, that’s the same argument being pushed by Trump and, notably, Attorney General Bill Barr.

The Russians are seizing on other charged social and political issues. Moscow has exploited racial politics and police brutality in America since the Cold War, but it’s particularly salient now, given the summer of protests against police brutality.

Russian trolls also promote “us versus them” narratives, as Young Mie Kim, an affiliated scholar with the Brennan Center, wrote in March 2020, that target the disillusioned on both the left and the right. And they try to create confusion within coalitions — trying to promote divisions within the Democratic Party, for instance, by attacking Biden for not being left-wing enough, or trying to play up Sen. Kamala Harris’s criminal justice record.

But, again, these social and political fissures already exist in the US. Russia just turns up the volume to make the cracks even wider.

“Most of the misinformation or the hyperpartisan stories that are out there are successful because we’re all kind of part of the environment in which we would like to believe horrible things about our opponents or people who don’t think like we do,” Priscilla Moriuchi, an expert on state-sponsored cyber operations and fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, said.

How the Russian delivery of misinformation has evolved

Russian trolls have refined their techniques, and are avoiding some of the clunkier or spammier stuff they put out around 2016. There’s less outright “fake news” and more slanted or misleading information.

The Russians have gotten a lot better at impersonating Americans, more closely mimicking real campaigns or organizations to try to deceive. One example from the Brennan Center: “the IRA mimicked the official account of the Bernie Sanders campaign, ‘bernie2020,’ by using similar names like ‘bernie.2020__’.” They’re starting to copy and paste instead of writing their own content, which also helps avoid some English-language slip-ups.

The IRA has tried to create real-life events, but it is more aggressively outsourcing its activities to others, whether local actors or other groups abroad. PeaceData is an example of this, enlisting Americans to write content for them.

“Russia has really started to shift toward the more surreptitious and kind of more plausibly deniable stuff,” Jankowicz told me.

Jankowicz noted that Russian trolls seem to be making better use of Facebook groups, which already are primed for misinformation or even radicalization. “That makes them a prime attack surface for any bad actor, whether that is a foreign disinformer or a domestic disinformer — all you have to do is drop a link into that group,” she said, and people will spread it for you, all on their own. No need to buy an ad.

These tactics make foreign actors a little harder to detect in our messy online ecosystem, and maybe more dangerous. If the articles are written by real, unwitting Americans, if they’re shared by real Americans in their own Facebook groups, social media companies may be slower to identify and remove foreign propaganda. As much as Americans like to call out Twitter or Facebook accounts for being “Russian bots,” experts told me social media companies have gotten pretty good at cracking down on those.

But even as these accounts get taken down, new ones tend to spring up in their place. “If they found out that you were going into the front window, then you go through the cellar,” Carle, the national security expert, said. “But you’d never ever stop. Why would you?”

How a conspiracy theory embraced by Trump keeps spiraling

A useful example of how Russia’s election meddling has continued to evolve since 2016 is the case of Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Ukraine.

Around this time last year, a whistleblower complaint from an intelligence official accused President Trump of using the “power of his office” to solicit help in the 2020 election from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Trump had a phone call with the Ukrainian president in which he pressured Zelensky to investigate his then-potential Democratic rival Joe Biden, and he tried to use a White House meeting and military aid as leverage to induce Zelensky to cooperate.

That whistleblower complaint ultimately resulted in Trump being impeached by the House, though the Senate acquitted him. But defenders of the president also latched onto the storyline that had sparked Trump’s inappropriate pressure campaign in the first place.

The allegation goes something like this: Joe Biden, when he was vice president, pushed the Ukrainian government to fire a Ukrainian prosecutor who was investigating Burisma — a company his son, Hunter, sat on the board of. The implication is that Biden inappropriately used his powers of office to protect his son from potential legal or financial trouble.

The reality is that Biden was acting squarely within the stated foreign policy of the US and its European allies, who felt the Ukrainian prosecutor in question wasn’t doing enough to clean up corruption. The push to get the prosecutor fired was supported at the time by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Yet Trump allies have continued to pursue this thread. Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani — also involved in the impeachment scandal — has continued to travel to Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, and has pushed the Biden-corruption conspiracy theory on pro-Trump networks. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) is also conducting an official Senate investigation into Biden’s dealings in Ukraine.

What’s helped the conspiracy along is the work of a Ukrainian politician with ties to Russian intelligence, Andriy Derkach.

Giuliani personally met with Derkach last year. And in May, Derkach released edited audio of private phone calls between Biden and Ukraine’s then-President Petro Poroshenko in which the two discuss, among other things, the ousting of the Ukrainian prosecutor.

There are doubts about the origins of the calls, and how much they are edited, but even then, they don’t provide much ammunition for the accusations against Biden that he intervened to protect his son. But that doesn’t really matter. They are thriving on right-wing media sites. Trump associates including Donald Trump Jr. have promoted the tapes, and Trump has retweeted the audio.

Then, earlier this month, the US Treasury sanctioned Derkach for interfering in the 2020 election.

“Derkach, a Member of the Ukrainian Parliament, has been an active Russian agent for over a decade, maintaining close connections with the Russian Intelligence Services,” Treasury announced. “Derkach has directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.”

So, to recap: An alleged Russian agent put out misinformation intended to discredit Joe Biden. To spread that information, he didn’t use Russian bots or fake Facebook accounts. He used real Americans already predisposed to what he was selling — including the president’s lawyer. (Giuliani has since distanced himself from Derkach.) The misinformation was amplified by conservative media outlets in the US, and was eventually shared on Twitter by the president himself.

The information itself didn’t even really support the conspiracy against Biden. It created doubt, and a specter of wrongdoing, essentially blurring fact and fiction.

And this still works. But, again, Russia doesn’t need to convince you; it just wants to confuse you.

The biggest election threats could still be on the way

With just weeks to go before the 2020 election, Americans know a lot more about what to expect — but are not necessarily more prepared.

Most experts I spoke to said it is unlikely that Russia could really swing or hack an entire election. Our election system has vulnerabilities, but Russia can exploit the dysfunction in our electoral system without needing to tamper with the actual results.

Their biggest concerns — besides another massive hack-and-dump similar to what happened with WikiLeaks in 2016 — are voter suppression on Election Day, and casting doubt on the outcome, especially if the election is close.

Russian-linked accounts targeted voters, including African American and other minority voters, to try to suppress turnout in 2016, and many expect Russia to repeat this again by giving false information about voting locations or methods of voting. That could potentially stop or confuse voters from actually casting a ballot.

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.

US officials have debunked the conspiracy theory that foreign actors are trying to manipulate voting by mail; in fact, voting by mail is more secure, as there’s a paper record, and ballots can be more easily verified. Yet Trump has already suggested that vote-by-mail is full of fraud.

In this charged environment, the fear is that Russians could advance news items or other misleading claims about fraud or problems at polls. This could stop people from voting at all — or, if the results aren’t favorable to one side or the other, it will be proof that the election was rigged. What happens after that is something we all should worry about.