The shifting chessboard of international influence operations

Microsoft recently announced that it had detected efforts by Russia, China, and Iran to influence the upcoming U.S. election. The discovery should not come as any surprise. In his 2019 testimony, former FBI Director Robert Mueller cautioned that Russia’s foreign election interference “wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here.”

The reason the Russians attempted to influence the election outcome in 2016 is simple: They think that domestic politics matters for foreign policy. That calculus hasn’t changed, so it’s no surprise that Russia is again interested in influencing the U.S. electoral outcome. What’s different this time around is the chess board of the international system: the actors, their preferred outcomes, and their preferred mechanisms of influence.

The reprise Russians

In the last election, although the Russians appeared to have a general preference for candidate Trump, they were primarily interested in sowing confusion, widening political divides, and exacerbating racial tensions. The benefit of a polarized U.S. domestic political landscape is straightforward: The more divided the United States is internally, the weaker it will be internationally and the less likely it will be to challenge and constrain Russian interests.

Coherent foreign policy is predicated on shared reference points, fundamental agreements across the aisle about U.S. international commitments. During the Cold War, the United States fashioned a bipartisan consensus that remained largely intact until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break-up of the Soviet Union, perhaps with a blip during the post-Vietnam period. Containing Communism, in particular, generated overwhelming, consistent support that translated into a successful strategy. But the relative unity of purpose that marked American views toward the country’s role in the world has not persisted in the post-Soviet era.

Russian operatives seized on these divisions to carry out a remarkable campaign of political interference in the last election. That campaign consisted of two main prongs. First, operatives at the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) used the tools of digital personalization—false news articles, targeted ads, and user-generated content—to “polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences” and even to provoke real-world events, as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2019 report on that campaign documented. In the second prong, hackers affiliated with the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU, broke into the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee and email accounts belonging to key political operatives, stole files and emails, and then leaked those documents online via WikiLeaks and other sites. These emails exposed and exacerbated internal divides in the Democratic Party, captivated the national media, and helped spur bizarre conspiracy theories that remain a potent force in American politics today.

As in the last election, Russian operatives again appear to be engaging in disinformation campaigns. Russian actors are again targeting Trump’s opponent, spreading inaccuracies about former Vice President Joe Biden’s mental health, continuing to stoke partisan acrimony online, and using Russian agents to push accusations of corruption about Biden, which led the Treasury Department to block assets belonging to several individuals involved in the smear campaign.

However, compared with 2016, a key difference in this election is that rather than relying on Russian native language speakers, whose grammatical errors in English have proven to be giveaways in the past, Russian operatives are instead co-opting Americans to write content for the 2020 campaign. Facebook and Twitter have both flagged news sites and accounts that look authentic but are actually tied to Russian political interference.

Isolated in the international system, stifling dissent at home, and sowing chaos abroad, Moscow has little to lose by using digital tools to keep the American electorate divided and helping to re-elect a president that poses perhaps the greatest threat to the democratic international order that Russia opposes. The goal is again to exacerbate polarization, delegitimize the election and democracy in ways that will be an obvious impediment to coherent international leadership, and possibly boost Trump as the individual less likely to generate bipartisan accord.

Chinese operations for 2020

This time around, Russia is not the only key player in the digital disinformation game. The key addition for 2020 is China, which is now more of a player. But instead of favoring instability, Beijing’s goal is the opposite: stability. To be sure, Beijing has little interest in rendering the United States so weak that it destabilizes the global order altogether, but it would still like to see Washington’s relative power diminished. Consistent with that motive, the U.S. intelligence community reports that China “prefers that President Trump—whom Beijing sees as unpredictable—does not win reelection.” 

Chinese intelligence gathering on American politics is not entirely new. In 2008, alleged Chinese government operators hacked into the campaigns of both presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, presumably to gain insights about their policy positions. Its intelligence operations targeting political campaigns builds on a well-developed infrastructure for digital espionage that uses a combination of units within its intelligence apparatus and semi-independent contractors to target the computer systems of just about every major institution in American society.

But in targeting political campaigns, rather than overturning the diplomatic apple cart with aggressive hack-and-leak campaigns like the Russians, the Chinese approach is a combination of information gathering and agenda promotion. Four years into Trump’s presidency, the Chinese government is well versed in his policy positions and political style. Its insights on a potential Biden administration, however, are less well developed. In June, Google reported that it has detected attempts by Chinese hackers to break into email accounts of Biden staffers, in what is likely to be an attempt to gain insight on his campaign rather than the early stages of a hack-and-leak operation.

Beyond trying to collect intelligence by hacking into the Biden campaign, China is exploiting higher social media usage during the pandemic to promote its preferred narratives. As part of Beijing’s effort to offer an attractive alternative to U.S. global leadership, official Chinese government tweets question U.S. progress in responding to COVID-19, deride race relations in the United States, and counter U.S. official messaging regarding human rights in Xinjiang.

In its campaign of propaganda and misinformation, China has scored some viral hits, including a notable dig at the United States’s handling of COVID-19. That cartoon video contrasts China’s treatment of the pandemic with the United States’s by putting a Lego version of a Chinese terracotta warrior in conversation with a Lego Statue of Liberty. The terracotta warrior makes the case for China’s effective handling of the virus, while the Statue of Liberty accuses it of lying and obfuscating the risk posed by the coronavirus. The video is a modern day inverse of an American propaganda video from 1949, Meet King Joe, that promotes the life of the American worker over that of the Chinese worker. In 1949, American propaganda was promoting U.S. corporate efficiency and its benefit to workers; in 2020, Chinese propaganda is highlighting its superior handling of COVID-19.

The Iranian response to maximum pressure

Iran’s anti-Trump administration tack stems from the antipathy toward the “maximum pressure” approach of the incumbent. As a candidate, Trump signaled his disdain toward the Iran nuclear agreement, and in May 2018 announced U.S. withdrawal from the agreement in May 2018. The Trump administration initiated new sanctions starting in 2017 and has continued to tighten the economic screws throughout. Biden, by contrast, has signaled his support for the nuclear agreement, which provides for sanctions relief in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear program. Given a choice between conflict or cooperation, it is not surprising that Iran would lean into a Biden administration that might reinstate the status quo ante.

Consistent with these preferences, Iran has sought to hack into accounts of Trump campaign staff. The Iran-backed group, known as Charming Kitten and Phosphorus, has been associated with phishing attacks, in which the email appears to come from an antivirus email but is actually laced with malware. Official US sources have cited Iranian efforts at “spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content,” although few specifics have been given.

So what?

Foreign election interference is nothing new. Countries have long recognized both that leadership matters, and that the inability to lead because of domestic division can redound to their benefit.

Yet what is new are the digital tools states now have at their disposal to interfere in foreign elections. Wielded well, these tools can generate massive payoffs for very little cost. After the success of its efforts in 2016, for example, Russia more than doubled its IRA budget in 2018—to $35 million. The increase prompted Congress to appropriate $425 million for states to upgrade their voting systems, a tit-for-tat that has forced the United States to spend exorbitant amounts on defensive measures simply to break even on democratic legitimacy.

The question now is whether those moves will be enough. With Russia, China, and Iran all seeking greater influence online, the dynamic somewhat resembles a Cold War arms race, but with information rather than missiles as the weapon. Whether the United States has learned how to guard against those weapons, and their evolving use, remains far from clear.

Sarah Kreps is a nonresident senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, a professor of government, and the Milstein Faculty Fellow in Technology and Humanity at Cornell University.

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