Russians aren’t done meddling in elections

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Because so much has been written about the Mueller Report, I decided to read it myself. After wading through, I think most commentary is missing at least one critical point: Our 2020 presidential election stands at high risk of a repeat performance of Russian election interference.

The scope of the Russian election interference has been underestimated and poorly understood. The interference went deeper and was more sophisticated than has been generally recognized.

The Russian team had a management group, a graphics department, a data analysis department, a search-engine optimization department and an information-technology department. They used data-driven targeting and analysis to assess how content was received, and they used that information to refine their message to enhance effectiveness.

The Russian strategy aimed to harden views rather than to change minds. The approach was geared toward confirming bias of those with identified views. It is admittedly difficult to quantify the effect of the Russian interference.

The Russians spent tens of millions of dollars starting in 2014 to try to influence American public opinion. The interference principally came from the Internet Research Agency, a Russian organization funded by Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin and companies he controlled. To quote the Mueller Report: “Using fictitious personae, IRA employees operated social media accounts and group pages designed to attract U.S. audiences. These groups and accounts, which addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. Interests. Over time these social media accounts became a means to reach large U.S. audiences.”

The actions of the IRA are well-described in Mueller’s court indictment of the 13 Russian defendants. IRA employees traveled to the United States in 2014 on an intelligence-gathering mission to obtain information and photographs for social media posts.

By early to mid-2016, the IRA started to support the Trump campaign while disparaging candidate Hillary Clinton. Those efforts continued through the election. The IRA had online conversations with Americans who became unwitting pawns. The Russians persuaded Americans to hold rallies in support of Trump and even purchased costumes to depict Hillary Clinton in a prison jumpsuit.

The Russians established servers and VPNs based in the United States to mask the location of the individuals involved. They also utilized U.S.-based email accounts linked to fake or stolen U.S. identity documents to back the online identities. The deception was about creating the impression that their activities were being carried out by Americans.

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The Mueller Report says that by the end of 2016 the IRA had the ability to reach millions of Americans through their social media accounts. The IRA had hundreds of individuals working on its online operation. In November 2017, a Facebook representative testified that Facebook had identified 470 IRA-controlled Facebook accounts that collectively made 80,000 posts between January 2015 and August 2017.

Facebook estimated the IRA reached as many as 126 million people through its Facebook accounts.

In January 2018, Twitter announced that it had identified 50,258 Russia-linked troll accounts with 3,814 directly linked to the IRA. It had plans to notify 677,775 users who either followed, retweeted or liked a tweet from one of the troll accounts.

I cite these statistics just to illustrate that the Russian election interference was not a small operation. And this does not even consider the part of the Russian campaign where they stole emails from the Democrats and parceled them out to Wikileaks for periodic strategic distribution.

Among U.S. intelligence agencies there is no disagreement about these facts. The FBI, CIA and National Security Agency all concluded in a rare public assessment in early 2017 that “Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election” and he did so in part to help elect Trump.

For anyone concerned about the security and integrity of our elections, the 2016 election is more than a warning. It is an object lesson. Given the success experienced by the Russians and the lack of adverse consequences for their interference, we are inviting them to do it again in 2020.

It is fair to assume that the Russians used the 2016 election as a trial run to explore our electoral vulnerabilities.

Unfortunately, President Trump has a history of denying and minimizing the Russian interference. In spite of the evidence, Trump has blamed the DNC, China and a 400-pound man. It is hard to forget his performance when he stood on the stage with Putin and said he chose to believe Putin’s “extremely strong and powerful” denials over U.S. intelligence. Still, to this day, he misses what is at stake: the integrity of our elections. Trump’s inaction around election security provides an opening for more Russian interference.

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Our election infrastructure clearly remains vulnerable to cyber attack in 2020. To quote Alex Halderman, a voting security expert from the University of Michigan: “Many states are making progress, but the progress is patchy and there are major gaps. … Forty states are using computer technology that is a decade old or more and often they are not receiving software updates or security patches.”

Outdated voting machines and lack of verified paper ballots are just a part of the problem. New technologies can produce deep fake audio and video clips that can misrepresent what a candidate is actually saying.

For example, deep fakes can synthesize an individual’s voice, swap one person’s face onto another person’s body in a video or alter words spoken. Witness the recent Nancy Pelosi fake tape.

Candidates can then confront the problem of having to respond to fraudulent misrepresentations, hoping to get the public to believe their assertions.

A big problem is that candidates may lack the money for cyber defense. Only four out of all the Democratic presidential candidates have secured email systems.

The United States has its own long history of attempting to influence foreign presidential elections. By one estimate, the U.S. attempted to influence the election of foreign countries 81 times between 1946 and 2000. And that is only up to 2000. Malcolm X might have seen this as an example of the chickens coming home to roost, but we need to do everything possible to shore up our cyber defenses.

Whether you are a Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, independent, liberal or socialist, all of us have a stake in a fair election process. At both the federal and state level, more money and effort needs to go into election security than has happened to date. As we have seen, elections can be close and foreign interference can make some kind of a difference.

A repeat of 2016 in 2020 would only serve the Russian objective of spreading mistrust toward the candidates and the integrity of the political system.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)





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