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Summary

It was confirmed in October of 2016, then explained in 2019 by the Special Counsel Investigation led by Robert Mueller – Russia had interfered with the 2016 presidential election. The goal of this interference was to cause harm to the Clinton campaign and assist in Trump’s election, as well as to increase social and political unrest in the country.

Last week FBI Director Christopher Wray confirmed that these efforts have not ceased concerning this year’s election, citing findings of “very active efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020” and more specifically that Russia “is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’”

And the Central Intelligence Agency issued a new report asserting that Vladimir Putin is likely directing election efforts to elect Trump. The assessment, which the agency has moderate confidence in, buttresses earlier findings that the Russian president supports President Trump’s re-election

Analysis

The tactics are not new this time around. Russian troll farms are constantly producing content reaching more than 120million Americans via multiple social media platforms. What is new is our awareness of these manipulations. Efforts have been made since 2016 to curb these misinformation campaigns, however it is unclear how much impact those efforts will have. A 2017 Yale study found that the use of labels on content stating that the information was “disputed,” a sort of middle-ground of censorship that had been agreed to, led to less than 4% of viewers to consider the information false. This may prompt the idea that Americans are allowing themselves to be manipulated or refusing to look away from what they potentially know is harmful. However, manipulation by misinformation has become such a part of American politics and social discourse that it has become almost impossible to identify.

The reason these efforts are able to camouflage themselves is that they are ultimately acting as a stirrer in a pot that has been simmering for years. While it has been confirmed that Russian troll pages are pro-Trump, many seemingly left-wing social media pages have been created by the Internet Research Agency (IRA or Glavset), a Russian political influence company. Their goal is unrest and division. Russian pages aligned with the BLM movement, for instance, have been present since 2016 and remain today in great supply. While seemingly counterintuitive to their goal, there are many possible results that work in their favor with this tactic – how many young, new to activism and political criticism could be convinced that the whole system is corrupt and simply not vote? How many will see posts that may be considered too far and abandon their fight for change? How many white supporters of BLM may see something worded just off enough to convince them they don’t belong, and be swayed to the other side? Of course, these outcomes are possible without interference in a country so divided, which has made it that much easier for them to identify which buttons to push.

Beyond subtle manipulations, it was found that in 2016 a number of state elections were targeted with malware designed to alter or sabotage the way voting machines operated. The FBI and Homeland Security offices are watching for this type of efforts in the upcoming election but have found no proof of such efforts as of yet. With mail-in voting playing a large part in the election, however, there may be no reason for malware. To the same end, Russian social media pages have been pushing Trump’s agenda of discrediting the mail-in voting system. Both sides have been infiltrated, and while the subtlety is jarring enough to make it seem a mastermind operation, Trump has been using the same types of dog-whistle manipulation throughout his campaign and presidency. In the age of social media, time will tell how – or if – we are able to quell this interference.

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