Recent US report of Russian election interference reveals how disinformation can exploit existing divides to erode trust in democracy

by Amanda Gu, Universal Rights Group NYC Democracy, Misinformation, fake news, and hate speech

On 16 March 2021, the US National Intelligence Council released a declassified report detailing what they found to be the extent of Russian interference in the 2020 US Presidential Election. US President Joe Biden issued a strong rebuke and one month later on 15 April his administration announced sanctions and other retributory measures. According to the report, Russian disinformation campaigns aimed to sow chaos and delegitimise the election by undermining citizens’ access to quality information – an attack on the foundations of democracy – by playing off pre-existing societal divides and by employing political microtargeting strategies. 

Russia’s disinformation campaign and its goals

The Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) reported that Russian attempts to interfere in US elections were in fact approved and directed by the Kremlin. Foreign interference is defined by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) as:malign actions taken by foreign governments or actors designed to sow discord, manipulate public discourse, discredit the electoral system, bias the development of policy, or disrupt markets for the purpose of undermining the interests of the United States and its allies’. 

The report stated that Russia believed a Biden presidency would be disadvantageous to Russian interests, thus used individuals linked to Russian intelligence to launder unsubstantiated allegations against Biden through US media organisations, US officials, and prominent individuals in the US, including those in former President Donald Trump’s inner circle. According to the report, the main goals of these Russian disinformation campaigns were to 1) undermine public confidence in election processes and results, 2) to denigrate President’s Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic party, and 3) exacerbate socio-political divisions in the US. 

In particular, the ICA stated that Russia sought to amplify mistrust in the electoral process by denigrating mail in ballots and highlighting alleged irregularities. This is exemplified by the accusations delivered by Russian state media and proxy websites in mid-August 2020 which criticised the integrity of universal mail-in voting and propagated the myth that out-of-date voter rolls would leave vast amounts of ballots vulnerable to tampering by ineligible voters, while scapegoating the Democratic Party for alleged voter fraud. 

Russian strategy meets American fragility 

The effectiveness of these disinformation campaigns can be attributed to the pre-existing partisan divides and growing distrust in expertise in the US, which have only worsened after these attacks. According to the report, Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) used its familiarity with US history, culture, and politics to exploit existing political divisions by targeting individuals who feel strongly about social issues ranging from racial and religious to party political, to ‘issue political’ such as feminist culture, gun rights, and trust in media. Disinformation campaigns were then used to activate or demobilise individuals who consider an issue personally important, creating an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ discourse.  

Disinformation tactics have become significantly more widespread and sophisticated as these online campaigns have come to rely on an assortment of bots, propaganda producers, and fake news outlets to exploit social media algorithms in order to propagate their message and ensure that it is seamlessly integrated with trusted content. These often rely on pre-existing paths of microtargeting created by advertisers and political campaigners through the use and abuse of personal data. Social media is presently an indispensable part of modern political campaigning, and there is a strong incentive for political campaigns to rely on microtargeting techniques to reach constituents. And because this targeted messaging only reaches select audiences, they are likely to bypass journalistic scrutiny and deliver disinformation to individuals unchallenged. Quantity is valued over quality, as the disinformation strategy relies on sheer mass to drown out real news

Politicians are becoming increasingly reliant on social media to win elections, and often use the same microtargeting techniques allegedly used by Russia – feeding fear and playing off partisan divides – in order to mudsling their way to victory. Disinformation tactics have also benefited from the fact that those at the top in the US peddled outlandish theories to their constituents, normalising and facilitating the spread of fake news. Take for example the issues of mail-in voting or election illegitimacy that were pushed by Trump himself; Russian bots did not have to create new rhetoric, but only had to spread pre-existing content. 

These attacks on voters’ rights to information and faith in the electoral system have worsened the existing partisan divide in America. The world of ‘alternative facts’ produced by online disinformation have created what appears to be two different realities for the two American parties, a dangerous position that puts political compromise, and hence the functioning of democracy, at risk. 

Dangers to democracy

Disinformation campaigns are especially dangerous to democracies because a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to a stable democracy. When information becomes manipulated, it damages citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate. This right to information is essential for voters who need to assess the performance of an elected official and exercise their democratic rights effectively, such as through timely protests. 

Disinformation campaigns like the ones presented in the ICA report, are not only able to manipulate the vital information individuals rely on to participate in a democracy, but also can undermine the integrity of the electoral system itself. Unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud or a stolen election propagates a fatalistic view that the individual vote is powerless, discourages democratic participation, and breeds a culture of mistrust. When the right to information is hindered, this begins to chip away at public trust, eventually causing the foundations of democracy to buckle.

When leadership matters

A political leader’s response matters – it sets the tone for the nation and the standards of acceptable behavior. With the release of the report President Biden pledged that Putin will ‘pay a price’ for interfering in US elections. Biden has repeatedly prioritized democracy, human rights, and equality in his bid for a US return to multilateralism. Biden’s stance is an essential part of norm-building that not only affects US approaches to electoral interference, but also offers an example to democracies around the world.

This diverges wildly from Trump’s downplaying of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections, when he refused to hold Russia accountable despite the evidence presented to him by his own intelligence agencies. The lack of repercussions for Russia’s cyber aggression, as well as Trump’s general hostility towards election security preparedness, left the US vulnerable to interference in the 2018 midterm election, as well as the most recent 2020 election. Post- 2020 election, Trump would go on to falsely claim victory and stoke rising intimidation against state politicians and even low-level election workers, leading to a new onslaught of disinformation. 

The price

Given the havoc that disinformation campaigns have wreaked on American society, it was unsurprising that on 15 April 2021, the Biden administration announced its decision to target Russia with sweeping sanctions and the expulsion of 10 diplomats over electoral interference in the 2020 election, its SolarWinds cyberattack, and occupation of Crimea. The US identified and sanctioned six Russian tech companies that supported Russian intelligence services as well as 32 entities and individuals suspected of influencing the 2020 election under the direction of the Russian government.

The 2020 Russian electoral disinformation campaign, as reported by the ICA, targeted the right to information, upon which democracy depends, and sought to undermine President Biden’s candidacy, playing off existing societal divides in the US. Most critically however, is that the propagation of ‘fake news’ and disinformation was already normalised on social media, and bolstered by those in power. It will be important as Biden seeks to reconstitute American democracy, that he sees disinformation not only an external threat wielded by foreign actors, but a domestic political tool that must be addressed internally as well.

Featured image: Chris Ried, Unsplash

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