Foreign influence campaigns and US elections, explained

Foreign influence campaigns and US elections, explained
Source: Alexander Natruskin, Reuters
A recent US assessment determined there was no evidence that any foreign actors actively interfered in the election to change or erase votes or compromise the voting process.

The release of an assessment by the United States National Intelligence Council on March 10 stated that both Russia and Iran were actively engaged in influence campaigns during the 2020 election. Building on its efforts from the 2016 election, Russia’s campaign was reportedly more involved than Iran’s, but less impactful and targeted this time around.

There are many valuable details in the report, which also revealed that China considered but ultimately opted against enacting its own influence campaign. Most importantly for concerns of election security, the assessment determined there was no evidence that any foreign actors actively interfered in the election to change or erase votes or compromise the voting process.

However, perhaps the main indirect take-away from the assessment is that digital efforts by foreign powers to influence US elections are the new normal. They are relatively cheap to engage in and can have ripple effects well beyond a single election. As such, election officials and politicians will have to stay vigilant against cyberoperations to influence and possibly interfere in future elections.

The key judgments of the US intelligence assessment

Entitled “Foreign Threats to the 2020 U.S. Federal Elections,” the assessment by the Intelligence Community (IC) is a declassified version of a report that had been given to former President Donald Trump, Congress and other members of the government on January 7.

The report provides five key judgments about the 2020 election and the level of influence and interference that foreign actors had on it. First, it delineates the two terms:

“When such activities are intended to directly or indirectly affect an election – including candidates, political parties, voters or their preferences, or political processes – the IC characterizes it as election influence. If a foreign government, as part of its election influence efforts, attempts or takes actions to target the technical aspects of elections-including voter registration, casting and counting of ballots, and reporting of results, the IC characterizes it as election interference.”

The assessment’s first key judgment states there is no evidence of foreign election interference during the 2020 election, deeming such attempts to do so without detection highly unlikely. This is due to both physical and cybersecurity monitoring of election systems and postelection audits. However, some state and local networks were compromised and the IC detected increased attempts to do so.

One way foreign actors have potentially interfered in future elections was with postelection misinformation campaigns. The assessment identified both Iran and Russia as having “spread false or inflated claims about alleged compromises of voting systems to undermine public confidence in election processes and results.”

The second key judgment was that “Russian President Putin authorized, and a range of Russian government organizations conducted, influence operations aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US.”

According to the IC, “Russian leaders preferred that former President Trump win reelection despite perceiving some of his administration’s policies as anti-Russia. We have high confidence in this assessment based in part on the Kremlin’s public comments about him and the consistency and volume of anti-Biden messaging we detected from Russian online influence actors.”

The IC found no evidence that Russia had engaged in hacking efforts to access the election infrastructure or the systems of candidates, as Russia is said to have done during the 2016 election.

Instead, the Russian government’s strategy in 2020 “was its use of proxies linked to Russian intelligence to push influence narratives-including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden-to US media organizations, US officials, and prominent US individuals, including some close to former President Trump and his administration.”

This has been accepted by many in the media to be an indirect reference to Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who was the key figure in the Hunter Biden email scandal and also worked directly with figures in Ukraine in an effort to unearth incriminating information about then-candidate Joe Biden.

In January, days before the end of Trump’s term, his administration sanctioned a group of Ukrainians who helped Giuliani in his efforts to seek information about Biden. Both Trump and Giuliani have publicly admitted that Trump sent Giuliani to Ukraine specifically for the purpose of damaging Biden politically.

The third key judgment confirmed reports from late 2020 that Iran had sought to influence the election through targeted cyber operations, including the fake Proud Boys emails that were sent to apparently threaten Democratic voters. The IC’s conclusion was that the efforts, authorized by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, were intended to damage Trump’s campaign.

The fourth key judgment found “China did not deploy interference efforts and considered but did not deploy influence efforts intended to change the outcome of the US Presidential election.” While China did reportedly take some efforts to undermine Trump, ultimately the government “did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk getting caught meddling.”

The fifth and final key judgment determined “additional foreign actors – including Lebanese Hizballah, Cuba, and Venezuela – took some steps to attempt to influence the election.” However, those efforts were less significant than Iran and Russia’s efforts.

Other cybercriminals also sought to disrupt the election, but this was done for financial reasons, seemingly not ideological ones.

The future of election influence

Unlike the 2016 election, which both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have concluded was affected by Russian interference, the IC assessment of the 2020 election suggests efforts this time around relied on indirect influence rather than direct attacks. It’s nonetheless a clear sign that attempted influence of US elections by foreign actors is likely to be the norm going forward.

This is not news for the IC or investigators who have followed Russian disinformation campaigns, both in the US and in countries around the world. What the 2020 assessment emphasizes is how widespread these types of campaigns have become. It’s clear that, while Russia, Iran and China are key players in this type of cyber activity, they are hardly alone.

One reason is the relative low cost of such influence campaigns, especially compared to more traditionally accepted norms of geopolitics. Efforts to influence policy and politicians in foreign countries is nothing new. There are accepted ways in which countries do this, such as lobbying and diplomacy, as well as more insidious ways, like espionage.

While the assessment suggests the IC is concerned about foreign influence over US elections, there is no indication that any of the actions taken by foreign nations were criminal. That’s in contrast to the 2016 election in which Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s emails resulted in 12 Russian intelligence officers being indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller.

The IC assessment determined that Russia and Iran are still in the midst of a campaign to sow conflict and misinformation about the 2020 election. This has involved efforts to inflame tensions within the US and to use the discord for intelligence gathering operations.

In response to the findings, the Russian embassy in Washington, DC called the assessment of US intelligence “groundless accusations,” stating “The conclusions of the report on Russia conducting influence operations in America are confirmed solely by the confidence of the intelligence services of their self-righteousness. No facts or specific evidence of such claims were provided.”

Iran has yet to directly respond to the latest IC assessment but in October 2020, when US intelligence alleged the nation was behind the Proud Boy emails, Iranian government officials denied any involvement.

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