Sep 8, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Russia's 2020 election manipulation looks a lot like 2016

Illustration of a hand in a suit using a tiny computer on a chain to hypnotize

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Increasing evidence shows that foreign actors, particularly Russia, are looking to exploit similar themes that were used in 2016 and in 2018 to divide the country ahead of this years' election.

Why it matters: There's now a visible pattern emerging across election cycles of which issues our country is most vulnerable to in terms of manipulation.

  • New data from the Alliance for Securing Democracy shows that in recent mentions of Joe Biden in tweets by Russian state media accounts, there's a clear narrative that Biden is a pro-cop, establishment centrist who can't be trusted by progressives.
Data: Alliance for Securing Democracy Chart: Axios Visuals
  • "It's something we saw clearly in 2016," says Bret Schafer, Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow, Alliance for Securing Democracy. "Russians were trying to peel off Bernie supporters from Clinton by targeting black voters."

Dividing the Democrats: Starting with the Iowa caucus debacle, there's been a huge push within Russian messaging machine to divide the Democrats between centrists and progressives.

  • The efforts became visible in February when Schafer's team saw evidence of Russian accounts blaming the DNC and establishment Democrats for the botched Iowa caucus.
  • Intelligence officials warned last month that Russia is looking to "denigrate" Joe Biden's campaign, similar to how it attacked Hillary Clinton's.

Race and Black Lives Matter: Tweets from Russian accounts have focused on the violence in Kenosha Wisconsin as well as the shooting of Jacob Blake.

Disrupting confidence in the voting system: A new intelligence bulletin from Department of Homeland Security warns that Russia "is attempting to sow doubt about the integrity of the 2020 elections by amplifying false claims related to mail-in voting resulting in widespread fraud," according to documents obtained by CNN.

  • "The mail-in voting angle is the key one," says Schafer. "That has come from the president so it's a tough thing for them to shut down as unreasonable."
  • Suggestions of "rigged elections" have increased in recent months as they pertain to mail-in voting throughout the pandemic, but have long been used to cast doubt in the electoral system by President Trump and his allies online.

Stoking fears around health: Russia has been actively spreading misinformation about the coronavirus throughout the West, according to digital forensics experts and government officials.

  • There's a history of this: The Senate Intel Report on 2016 election meddling notes the Russian Internet Research Agency spread a hoax concerning poisoned turkeys during the Thanksgiving holiday of 2014.

The big picture: In early August, a report from the State Department accused Russia of using disinformation campaigns to manipulate the U.S. election.

  • While the report didn't note specific efforts being made by the Russians, it warned that disinformation campaigns were underway, and alluded to ways that efforts in 2016 may be used to stoke fears ahead again of 2020.

The bottom line: Research and data suggests that the Russians and other groups are actively trying to undermine the U.S. elections by sowing fear and discord around issues that have long-been considered contentious in the U.S.

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