Is Russia working to reelect Donald Trump, the unorthodox real estate magnate turned president? Is it also seeking to elevate Sen. Bernie Sanders, who as a democratic socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, established sister cities in Nicaragua and the Soviet Union?
Or is its preference simply the candidate through whom it can create the most chaos?
As voters headed to the polls Tuesday in 14 states from Texas to Tennessee, questions like these are overhanging the entire election. On Monday, U.S. intelligence agencies and federal departments issued a rare joint statement warning that foreign influence campaigns continue to spread “false information and propaganda.”
So what does Russia really want?
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a country run by a former KGB operative, the answer is complicated.
First of all, it’s not clear to what extent Russia is influencing American voters online. As social media companies and intelligence agencies bolster their efforts to prevent large-scale disinformation campaigns, Russia is trying to fly under the radar.
Second, to the extent that Moscow may be trying to boost a particular candidate, it’s more utilitarian than ideological. Yes, it would like someone whose policy views align with Russian interests, but it is also looking for the best wedge to divide the American people.
“It’s about finding vehicles to support their broader foreign policy goals,” says Jessica Brandt, head of research and policy at the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy in Washington. Those goals, she adds, include sowing chaos in a way that “spikes doubt, distracts us, polarizes us, and divides us.”
Indeed, in a broader sense, Russia wants exactly what America is giving it – a country so polarized that it is easy for a foreign interloper to masquerade as yet another angry citizen and exploit those divides even further. And because the nation is so divided, it can’t even agree on the nature of the threat. National efforts to get to the bottom of the mischief and prevent further meddling are viewed by some with distrust, preventing a strong united response.
“Intelligence briefings and warnings are now being used as a cudgel to score political points – not protect the country,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and co-author of “The Kremlin Playbook: Understanding Russian Influence in Central and Eastern Europe.” “This is where I see Mr. Putin sitting back, his feet on his desk, and his work here is done.”
Is Russia seeking to boost Trump, Sanders?
Long before Vladimir Putin ascended to the Russian presidency or Mr. Trump had any hope of winning a U.S. election, the Kremlin was looking for candidates and officials in adversarial countries who could work from within to boost Moscow’s interests. That was part of the old Soviet playbook, says Clint Watts, an ex-FBI agent who began tracking Russian disinformation campaigns targeting the U.S. in 2014.
At the start of the 2016 cycle, the main thrust of Russia’s influence operations was a very focused effort to undermine former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whom President Putin believed was behind opposition protests in Russia.
Then a new theme emerged, says Mr. Watts: “This Donald Trump guy would be great for us, and he’s hyperdivisive.”
Russia also looked favorably on Sen. Bernie Sanders, who back when he was the democratic socialist mayor of Burlington, Vermont, had visited Cuba and Nicaragua.
According to a 2018 indictment, social media specialists involved in the 2016 Russian meddling were instructed to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them).”
Why? Populists tend to act as a divisive wedge because they’re so passionate and angry, says Mr. Watts. That feeds into Russia’s goal of making American democracy look dysfunctional, undermining the world’s faith in U.S. leadership and weakening alliances that Russia sees as opposing its own interests.
“Their long-run goal is break up NATO, break up the EU, advance their position around the world, and lower America on the world stage so there’s more space for them to elevate themselves,” says Mr. Watts.
Russia is reportedly again seeking to boost both President Trump and Senator Sanders, who was briefed by intelligence officials on the matter, according to the Washington Post. The Vermont senator denounced any Russian attempts to undermine American democracy, calling President Putin “an autocratic thug.”
“My message to Putin is clear: Stay out of American elections, and as president I will make sure that you do,” Mr. Sanders said.
Mr. Trump, for his part, has called the reports of Russia aiding his reelection campaign “disinformation.”
Cracking down on Russian disinformation
In Monday’s joint statement, the heads of the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, and Homeland Security, as well as three intelligence agencies and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) cited an “unprecedented level of commitment and effort to protect our elections and to counter malign foreign influence” and warned of “sharp consequences” for any foreign powers who dared meddle.
CISA is working with all 50 states and more than 2,300 local jurisdictions to secure the country’s election systems, including free vulnerability scanning and onsite risk assessments. The FBI is working with social media companies, which have invested significantly in election integrity efforts.
Indeed, there is far more alertness now than in 2016, says Ben Nimmo, a pioneer of disinformation investigations.
He notes that one of the most prominent fake accounts in that election cycle, @TEN_GOP, was registered to a Russian mobile number. That wouldn’t fly today – and the Russians likely wouldn’t try it, either. They’re increasingly trying to hide their efforts, says Mr. Nimmo, director of investigations for Graphika, a company that bills itself as the cartographers of the internet age.
For example, some 50 Instagram accounts taken down by Facebook in October used almost no original text, instead copying and pasting from other accounts so as to avoid small grammatical mistakes that would give them away as non-native English speakers. But that has made it hard to build a persona, limiting their reach. Of these accounts, only one had more than 20,000 followers, according to a Graphika report co-authored by Mr. Nimmo.
The accounts taken down included 11 supporting Mr. Trump and four supporting Mr. Sanders. But as a whole, the accounts, which appeared to be part of a network, were working to fuel divisions by posting on opposite sides of controversial issues such as police violence. Some included hashtags like #blacklivesmatter or #policebrutality while others would use #bluelivesmatter or #backtheblue.
“They’re fueling both sides of the argument, because what they want to do is bring the two sides to a clash,” says Ms. Conley of CSIS, who frequently tells audiences: “The American mind is the battle space.”
How polarization muddies the waters
If foreign information operations are like fish swimming in the sea, hyperpartisanship has created hospitable waters for them to swim in, says Mr. Nimmo.
In that environment, he says, voters should be alert to efforts to manipulate them through emotion – whether it’s coming from Russia or a fellow American.
“If I see a post which is trying to make me angry or afraid, maybe I should ask why it’s trying to do that,” he says.
After all, it’s not just Russians posting polarizing content online. If there hadn’t been American trolls back in 2016, there wouldn’t have been anyone for the Russians to pretend to be.
And it’s not just social media; TV and talk radio also contribute to a polarized media ecosystem. Still, there’s a qualitative difference in the threat posed by Russian disinformation – which could sow doubts about the legitimacy of election results.
“Foreign trolls are a small percentage of it,” says Renee DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, who coauthored a report for the Senate Intelligence Committee quantifying and analyzing Russia’s influence operations targeting U.S. citizens from 2014-17. “The challenge is that their presence is potentially used to discredit the results of an election and suggest that outsiders are tampering, which is why continuing to detect that is such an important thing.”
If there is a contested Democratic convention this summer, Mr. Watts says Russia would almost certainly exploit that by pushing the notion that the system was rigged against Mr. Sanders. That’s a narrative Russia very effectively fed when its military intelligence unit hacked into Democratic National Committee emails and leaked documents showing the party establishment’s preference for Mrs. Clinton. This year, Mr. Sanders’ supporters could be even more angry if they suspect the nomination was stolen from them.
It’s not hard to envision “everybody going to the convention and screaming at each other,” says Mr. Watts. “And Russia clapping, because this is exactly what they wanted.”
So what is the answer?
“Both parties have to love the country more,” says Ms. Conley – even if it means forgoing an opportunity to score political victories. “You have to love the country more than your own power.”
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