New evidence of Russian meddling in the 2020 election has emerged, including thousands of social media accounts tied to the same Moscow-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) that sprung dirty tricks during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Not only is Russia interfering in the upcoming elections to support President Trump but state-backed hackers are also meddling in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-NH) presidential campaign in targeting “both sides of the ideological spectrum to sow division,” a recent report from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice said. The attackers are even more “brazen” than they were four years ago, the report said.
Political sabotage has been a staple of American politics for decades, consisting of a toolbox of tactics founded on stoking outrage and discord. Now, however, it’s a whole different game, with social media presenting a dynamic digital pulpit from which bad actors can launch boundless disinformation and misdirection campaigns. Simultaneously sabotaging both sides differs from conventional persuasion in that confusion, disruption and suspension of facts and trust are its us-versus-them goals.
Along those lines, the Brennan Center’s report referenced a “systematic campaign operation” originating in Russia with IRA-linked groups that was subsequently quashed by Facebook and Instagram, wrote Young Mie Kim, a Brennan Center affiliated scholar. Facebook removed some 75,000 posts linked to an IRA account and another 50 similarly tied Instagram accounts.
In September 2019, just a few months ahead of the Democratic primaries, Kim said she first noticed the social media posts. ‘“My team at Project DATA (Digital Ad Tracking & Analysis) happened to capture some of these posts on Instagram before Facebook removed them,” Kim said. “We identified 32 accounts that exhibited the attributes of the IRA, and 31 of them were later confirmed to be the IRA-linked accounts,” he said.
Some of the latest tactics, including Russian trolls impersonating American social and political groups, mirror those of 2016’s meddling, such as attempting to discourage people from voting and cranking up existing social strife. “In the context of the 2020 elections, I found both endorsement and attack messages for major candidates, parties, and politicians including the president,” wrote Kim. “Compared to the posts highlighting existing divides around social identities or issues, election-related endorsements and attack posts are more direct, honed, and straightforward.”
It’s not clear if the IRA’s campaigns will home in on swing states in 2020 as it did in 2016. Considering that IRA operatives have improved their ability to impersonate candidates and political parties and to recreate official looking campaign logos, it would be surprising if the sabotage didn’t pinpoint those same states.
Inasmuch as many of the IRA’s social media posts encircle wedge issues in U.S. society, such as racism, immigration, gun control and gay rights in which both sides of the political divide are predictably nicked and cut, it’s no surprise that the attackers have “moved away from creating their own fake advocacy groups” to mimic and appropriate names of actual American political associations,” Kim wrote. “And they’ve increased their use of seemingly nonpolitical content and commercial accounts, hiding their attempts to build networks of influence,” she said.
What should we do? Here are some of Kim’s suggestions:
A comprehensive digital campaign policy framework must be considered to ensure the integrity of election campaigns. Right now, no such regulatory policy exists.
Tech platforms must do a better job at transparency, including identity verification and labeling. It’s still too hard to discern foreign and domestic actors, false identities, and potential coordination between various groups.
Enhance the Foreign Agent Registration Act. The law requires that agents representing the interest of foreign powers in a political or “quasi-political” capacity must disclose their relationship with the foreign power. FARA should acknowledge the changes in the nature of foreign influences in the digital era.
Enact rules for digital political campaigns. The Federal Election Commission currently does not adequately address digital political campaigns. Comprehensive, cross-platform archives of political campaigns, including issue ads and target information, would help audiences, law enforcement, and researchers understand what’s happening in digital political advertising.
“Without safeguards like these, Russia and other foreign governments will continue their efforts to manipulate American elections and undermine our democracy,” Kim wrote.