The incentives for foreign countries to meddle are much greater than in 2016, and the tactics could look dramatically different.
Russia is “doing it as we sit here.”
This stray line, buried in seven hours of testimony on Capitol Hill, wasn’t just Robert Mueller’s way of rebutting the charge that his investigation into the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential election amounted to a two-year, $32 million witch hunt.
It was also a blunt message to the lawmakers arrayed before him, the journalists hunting for a bombshell, and the millions of Americans monitoring the proceedings: We’re all here fighting the last war, when we really should be bracing ourselves for the coming one.
The Russians “expect to do it during the next campaign,” the special counsel continued, and “many more countries are developing capability to replicate” Moscow’s model.
This time, a Donald Trump presidency isn’t some pipe dream or fuzzy nightmare, as it was for many foreign governments during the 2016 race. It is instead an all-consuming reality that is disrupting America’s alliances, role in the world, and relationships with great powers like China and Russia. The 2020 election will determine whether that reality is an aberration or a new normal.
The incentives for other countries to meddle “are so much greater in this election than in the past one, and maybe greater than any election that we’ve had to this point,” Ben Freeman, the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, told me. “The opportunities to interfere in the election are just so rampant,” he added, reflecting on the dirt-cheap social-media manipulations that Russia made famous a few years ago, and “the barriers to entry for foreign governments have been blown apart.”
Pointing to the Saudis’ stake in seeing Trump, their lone ally in Washington, reelected, and the Chinese interest in witnessing their implacable foe on trade defeated, he envisioned a looming “election-interference food fight between foreign countries.”
So how will the battleground shift from 2016 to 2020? Imagining what it could look like requires widening the definition of what Americans have come to think of as “foreign interference” since Vladimir Putin’s intervention in the past presidential race.
The Hack and Leak: Overcome or Poised for a Comeback?
It’s unclear whether the Russian government will reprise its most infamous and innovative act in 2016: the hacking and leaking of emails from the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. A less sophisticated operation against Emmanuel Macron’s party, of suspected Russian origins but still officially unattributed, occurred during the 2017 French presidential election, fizzling out with nowhere near the impact of the anti-Clinton campaign. The tactic has also cropped up in feuds between Arab Gulf countries. Yet no such effort succeeded during the 2018 U.S. midterm elections. Joe Biden and some of the other Democratic candidates have pledged to not use fabricated or hacked material during the 2020 race, and Trump has similarly (if less formally) committed to not exploiting material stolen by a foreign adversary. Department of Homeland Security officials have met with Trump’s presidential-campaign team and those of all his Democratic challengers to ensure they’re taking steps such as using secure messaging apps and multifactor authentication for digital services.
John Carlin, who until 2016 served as the Justice Department’s highest-ranking national-security lawyer, told me that other American adversaries with formidable cybercapabilities, such as North Korea and Iran, could conceivably engage in such behavior. But China, the other big player here, has preferred to engage in traditional espionage, economic espionage, and various influence operations in the United States. Doing something as “direct” and “high risk” as what Russia did in 2016 would mark “a change in China’s approach” and “a significant escalation,” Carlin said.
Still, Trump has at times almost encouraged foreign actors to repeat the hack-and-leak gambit. He at one point stated that he would consider accepting a foreign government’s offer of damaging information about an opponent. And he has demonstrated that he is easily swayed by calculated data dumps: The British ambassador to the United States was forced to resign this summer over leaked cables, in which the envoy disparaged the Trump administration, after an unrelenting Twitter outburst from the president.
The Dawn of a New Disinformation Age
Social-media giants such as Facebook and Twitter have grown far more sophisticated since 2016 at detecting and disabling coordinated foreign campaigns of misinformation and fake accounts, honing their approach based on challenges confronted not just during the U.S. midterms but in elections everywhere from India to the European Union. (Trump often maintains that tech companies are part of the problem rather than the solution, accusing Twitter of censoring conservatives and Google of helping Clinton at his expense in 2016.)
These crackdowns, however, have exposed how the actors behind these schemes have multiplied beyond Russia and employed new tactics and tools to exert influence on political processes worldwide. Just last week, for example, Facebook disrupted one image-burnishing operation coming from Saudi Arabia and another originating in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, both directed at Middle Eastern and African users of Facebook and Instagram.
Facebook and Twitter now regularly announce purges of coordinated influence operations from countries ranging from Russia to Iran to Venezuela. The cybersecurity company FireEye reported this spring that a social-media campaign possibly “organized in support of Iranian political interests” included Twitter accounts impersonating Republican candidates for the House of Representatives in 2018.
In a study published in July of 53 online foreign-influence efforts in 24 countries from 2013 to 2018, Princeton researchers found that Russia is by far the most frequent practitioner of such campaigns. (Iran has become a more prominent player since 2016, while China and Saudi Arabia have dabbled in these activities as well.) They discovered that the efforts most often seek to defame specific politicians or persuade voters to adopt a particular political position, rather than aiming to polarize the public by promoting both sides of a divisive issue.
One of the researchers, Jacob Shapiro, told me that Russia’s continued predominance in these dark arts suggests that other countries still appear to be prevented by international norms from following the Kremlin’s lead, even though they’re entirely capable of doing so. But he added that the U.S. government hasn’t done enough regardless to deter adversaries from engaging in this behavior. (The Trump administration has imposed sanctions in retaliation for Moscow’s political meddling and conducted cyberoperations against Russia, including just ahead of the midterm elections, but even Christopher Krebs, the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, admitted in June that “we’re still trying to figure out what the true pain point is for President Putin and his regime.”)
“Even if Twitter and Facebook harden themselves significantly, there are tons of other platforms out there where one might promote inauthentic activities to try and shift political attitudes. It’s going to be hard to fully police that,” Shapiro explained.
“We have not yet heard the president ... say, ‘Any nation which seeks to influence our politics surreptitiously will pay a price. We will aggressively target your institutions that are engaging in it, we will sanction the individuals involved, and it will damage our relationship,’” he said.
At the frontier of the concerns about what undeterred American adversaries could experiment with in 2020 are “deepfakes,” sham audio and video made to seem real through artificial-intelligence and machine-learning technologies—a development predicted by the U.S. intelligence community’s 2019 “Worldwide Threat Assessment.” The fear has deepened since Facebook struggled in May to stop the dissemination of a doctored clip of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appearing to slur her words.
Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has argued that while the Pelosi footage was a “cheapfake” rather than a “deepfake,” it served as a test of whether technology companies, the U.S. government, and the American public are prepared to dispatch with the real deal. The answer, in his view, is no, no, and no.
The Soft Underbelly of America’s Election Infrastructure
This is the shoe that didn’t drop in 2016. A Senate Intelligence Committee report released in July found that while there’s no evidence that votes were altered or vote tallies manipulated during the past U.S. presidential election, the Russians likely targeted election systems in all 50 U.S. states, including research on “election-related web pages, voter ID information, election system software, and election service companies.” In a couple of cases, the Russians succeeded in breaching state election infrastructure. Among the theories aired in the report about Moscow’s motivations is that it was cataloging “options or clandestine actions, holding them for use at a later date.” (Russia denies meddling in the election and indeed any involvement in U.S. politics.)
“It’s a significant finding of both a vulnerability and an intent by the adversary to figure out how to take advantage of that vulnerability,” Carlin said. They would most likely use it to suppress votes and “ultimately undermine confidence [not only] in our democracy, but in democratic systems worldwide.”
He noted that the most consequential way these vulnerabilities could be exploited would be for the Kremlin or another foreign government to change vote counts, an unlikely scenario that nevertheless poses a greater risk in the few U.S. states that don’t have a paper trail for ballots cast. (Carlin is a lawyer for the plaintiffs in a pro bono lawsuit against one of those states, Georgia, over its electronic voting system.)
Foreign actors could also try to make it harder for Americans to exercise the right to vote, perhaps by modifying voter-registration rolls, tampering with government mechanisms for informing voters when and where to vote, indirectly stifling the vote through attacks on systems such as the power grid, or taking a step akin to what the Syrian Electronic Army, a hacking group supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, did in 2013: breaking into the Associated Press’s Twitter feed to falsely report a terrorist attack at the White House, briefly crashing the stock market.
Carlin offered the example of hackers broadcasting a message to voters that their polling site is down because of a hurricane, and that they need to head instead to a fake address. “That’s so easy to execute, and a bunch of our foreign adversaries have that capability,” he said. (Facebook and Twitter are working on removing content designed to suppress votes, and Twitter’s public-policy team has been meeting with the presidential-campaign teams and the Republican and Democratic National Committees to discuss matters such as account security.)
The Influence Hiding in Plain(ish) Sight
The focus on illicit foreign activities for mucking around in American elections, while warranted, has tended to distract from the many legal and quasi-legal ways foreign governments and nationals exert influence on the U.S. political system. Governments can spread propaganda to American audiences through state-run news organizations such as China’s Global Times or Russia’s RT. Facebook has instituted new rules to prevent overseas entities from buying political ads on the site, but there are still loopholes in U.S. campaign-finance law that, for instance, allow them to purchase online ads so long as it’s not done in coordination with a campaign and doesn’t openly call for the election or defeat of a particular candidate.
Foreign leaders can also explicitly or implicitly make their preferences in an election known, or choose to either take an action or refrain from taking an action at pivotal moments during an election cycle. This is what Trump is referring to when he accuses the Chinese government of slow-walking a trade deal in hopes that he will lose the presidency to what he characterizes as some Democratic pushover in 2020.
Perhaps the most common way for other countries to sway American politics and policy is through “dark money,” or other direct and indirect funding and influence channels—whether that comes in the form of U.S.-based foreign agents meeting with campaign officials abroad or American lobbyists making campaign contributions to American politicians while simultaneously working on behalf of foreign clients. Foreign governments can also financially support think tanks or other nonprofits that have a (technically separate but in practice fluidly operated) political arm that can engage in activities like buying campaign ads.
Foreign governments are inserting themselves into U.S. politics “every single day. It’s not just happening on Election Day,” Ben Freeman, at the Center for International Policy, said. Given the reputational damage and the retaliation from the U.S. government that election interference could invite, most foreign governments would only resort to placing that “long-shot bet” if and when they feel they can no longer “do the legal influence work here in D.C. and behind the scenes.”
“A big part of the reason why the Russians had to go to all these illegal measures,” he noted, “is because their legal influence operation sucks.”