Russian interference in American elections: yesterday, today and tomorrow

U.S. intel agencies: Russia and Iran tried to interfere in 2020 elections

A virtual discussion on this topic took place in New York

Features of Russian interference in the 2016 and current US presidential elections became the subject of an hour and a half analytical forum on Zoom.

The panel discussion is co-organized by the Harriman Institute at Columbia University and the Jordan Center for the Study of Russia (New York University – NYU). Co-moderators were Alexander Cooley, director of the Harriman Institute, Joshua Tucker, director of the Jordan Center, and Tucker’s last-minute NYU colleague, head of the University Center for Social Media and Policy Zeve Sanderson ).

Alexander Cooley, who opened the discussion, recalled how he and his fellow political scientists were once struck by both the unprecedented scale of interference of Russian special services and propaganda agencies in the US presidential elections in 2016, and the Kremlin’s aggressive attempts to interfere in elections in other countries of the world..

Three and a half years have passed, many books and analytical studies have been written, but key issues remain on the agenda, Cooley said. How has Russian propaganda influenced the views and perceptions of American voters? How has Russian tactics changed over time? And what can be expected in this regard from Russia in the US presidential elections this year?

Three phases

Panelist David Shimer is a research fellow at Yale University, where he earned his BA and MA in history. Scheimer is the author of Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference, published this year. He is preparing to defend his doctoral dissertation in international relations at the University of Oxford. His analytical articles appear in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post and other publications.

As David Scheimer emphasized in his opening remarks, Russian interference in the 2016 US elections is just an episode of a long history of confrontation between the United States and Russia..

“We are talking, first of all, about secret intelligence activities,” he said, “aimed at manipulating both votes, meaning interference in the technology of counting them, and voters, meaning the formation of their preferences. Both countries were pioneers of this intervention. I would divide this story into three phases “.

The first phase, according to Scheimer, is 1919-1947. He recalled that Lenin and the Comintern adhered in principle to the concept of interference in the affairs of European countries and the United States (the thesis of the world revolution), which gave rise to a persistent fear in the West of the “red threat”.

The second phase, 1947 – 1991, began with the signing by President Truman of the document establishing the CIA. It is symbolic, Scheimer noted, that the first major CIA operation was secret interference in the elections in Italy in order to support the Christian Democrats and prevent the victory of the communists, who were supported by the Soviet secret services. This pattern of concurrent interference by the United States and the Soviet Union in elections was observed later throughout the world, from Chile to Japan, from France to El Salvador..

“In the American elections, the Soviet intelligence tried to interfere even until 2016,” noted Scheimer, “however, then there were no such technical means as in our time. The Kremlin has always sought to sow discord in relations between different strata and groups of the US population, to help those candidates who would be beneficial to the Soviets, and to discredit hostile candidates. “.

The third phase, from 1991 to the present, is characterized by the end of the Cold War and, consequently, attempts to change ideological guidelines after the world collapse of the communist doctrine..

However, Scheimer argues, one of the CIA’s operations, namely secret interference in the elections in Serbia in 2000, proceeded according to a completely traditional scenario. For America, he continues, this practice has become rather an exception, but in the 21st century Russia has, as it were, rediscovered the possibilities of secret interference in elections around the world..

“The main goal of Russia is to sow hostility within countries, to help candidates with an extreme and destructive platform, to discredit the very democratic mechanism of elections,” Scheimer said. “Thus, Putin seeks to weaken America and at the same time show his fellow citizens that elections in the West are always lies and deception.”.

History of two rallies

“The left cannot enjoy drinking milk because it promotes white suprematism.”.

“Like and Share if You Think Our Military Veterans Deserve Benefits Before Refugees”.

Discussant Rene DiResta demonstrated these and other examples of options for information “clogging” of the Internet space with the help of slides that changed on the monitor during her speech..

As Rene DiResta recalled, social networks have become a favorite target for such Kremlin media structures as the Internet Research Agency, known as the “Prigozhin Troll Factory” or “Kremlin bots”. Such media structures affiliated with the Russian special services, such as this “agency”, actively use fake accounts on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other social networks. This is how a “reliable” legend of non-existent persons is formed, which is reinforced by the involvement of real persons and real publications in the dissemination of fakes, which, by deception or in other ways, are involved in the legitimization of mirage resources..

For clarity, Rene demonstrates a scheme of “leaking” misinformation, where hackers are involved who extract “leaks” that they dump into social media and professional media..

Russian interference in American elections: yesterday, today and tomorrow

Renee DiResta is Technical Research Manager at Stanford University’s Internet Observatory. She studies the dissemination of disinformation and propaganda through state and near-state channels, including a variety of conspiracy theories, advises Congress, the Department of State, academic, public and business structures..

“Russian disinformation channels have proven their effectiveness in the 2016 elections,” said Rene DiResta. “The information ecosystem has turned out to be heavily littered with fake stuffing aimed at this in order to further split American society.”.

“If Prigozhin’s structures and other propaganda channels such as RT (Russia Today) operate exclusively in the virtual space, then the Russian military intelligence (GRU) is looking for ways to influence the real situation on the streets of American cities,” she said..

How dangerous and destructive such “influence” can be is demonstrated by the story of two conflicting protests in Houston in 2016. They were organized at the local Islamic center at the same time by two Russian Facebook accounts. One of them demands the secession of Texas and the expulsion of the followers of Islam from the territory of the state. The other is called the Muslim Association of America. The exchange of insults between the protesters escalated into a skirmish, which, obviously, was what the provocateurs were counting on..

Lessons from 2016

Kathleen Hall Jameson devoted most of her speech to the lessons of Russian information interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. She recalled that a significant part of American voters hesitated until the last moment in choosing a candidate. For this reason, the expert argues, Wikileaks’ throwing of compromising evidence on Hillary Clinton had an important and possibly decisive influence on the mood of a large segment of the electorate..

Today, before the elections in November, according to Jameson, the situation is very different. Conservatives and liberals alike are mostly persistent in their likes and dislikes towards Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and it is difficult to imagine anything similar to Julian Assange’s leaks in terms of possible instantaneous impact on voters’ preferences..

Jameson believes that it is necessary to develop a “dictionary of legitimacy” for the press so that mistakes made by the mainstream media during the 2016 election campaign are not repeated. Then, for example, Hillary’s statements about “open trade” and “open borders” were grossly taken out of context and distorted by her opponents. Jameson is convinced that the press must not only always check the accuracy of the information quoted, but also be sure to indicate its source and the degree of its legitimacy..

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications and director of the Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. Author and co-author of 16 books, including the most recent Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President, which received an American Publishers Association Award last year and was a paperback companion in June 2020.

  • Oleg Sulkin

    Journalist, film critic, correspondent for the Russian Service «Voices of America» in New York.

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Russian interference in American elections: yesterday, today and tomorrow

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