During the leadup to the 2016 presidential elections, Russia bots, trolls and media outlets such as RT and Sputnik were actively messaging about the political contest that eventually resulted in the election of President Donald Trump. Cyberattacks on servers used by the two major American political parties were traced by the Russian intelligence services, leading the U.S. intelligence community to conclude that the Russians had attempted to influence the election. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently stated, “It stretches credulity, given the magnitude, scope and depth of the Russian efforts, that they didn’t have impact on individual voter decisions.”
What is less clear is whether the Russian influence operation could have had significant impact on the outcome of the elections. Common sense dictates that Vladimir Putin would have much preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, due to their policy positions during the campaign, coupled with Putin’s antipathy towards Clinton from her tenure as secretary of state. Putin certainly had motive.
Some in the Trump corner, like the recently ousted Homeland Security adviser to the president Tom Bossert, have claimed the resources the Russians spent were far too few to have meaningful impact, and our electoral system far too complex for manipulation on the scale needed to swing an election. “No voter in this country was influenced by those ads,” he told The Cipher Brief’s annual conference last week of Russian trolling.
But how much time and effort would it have really taken? And is it really unlikely, as claimed by Fox News, that the Russians could do much during the 2018 mid-terms? Or again during the 2020 presidential elections?
If the U.S. intelligence community is right that Russia did attempt to influence the election, there’s almost no chance that the hacking and fake news, the digital ads, the disinformation spread by Russian bots and paid trolls and the phony rallies that were organized by Russian operatives to sow anger and dissent had no effect on any votes. It most certainly did. The real question is how to quantify what that effect was — and how best to prevent them from repeating it in the future.
One of us served for thirty years in the CIA’s Clandestine Service working the Russian target, and one of us has worked for forty years on Democratic political campaigns. Based on our experience, we agree with former DNI Clapper that it is difficult to believe the Russian influence operation had no effect on the 2016 elections.
More importantly, we believe it is extremely likely the Russians are already working on the 2018 mid-terms, as well as the 2020 presidential elections. The Russians sowed chaos by influencing the 2016 elections; they will undoubtedly try again in both 2018 and 2020. Chaos divides the U.S. socially and politically, which helps Putin maintain his autocratic grip over Russia.
In any election, it’s hard to know exactly how many voters are influenced by what, because there are so many factors: media coverage; television ads; radio ads; direct mail; digital media; door-to-door visits by volunteers; phone calls; bumper stickers; yard signs and all of the things modern campaigns do. It is an old political maxim that you try dozens of advertising tactics in a campaign in the hope that a few of them will actually work. That’s still true with modern techniques.
Today, though, most of these communications are targeted to voters who respond to the messages specifically. For instance, older voters tend to respond to messages about Social Security and Medicare because it affects them personally, while younger voters are less interested.
Firms like Cambridge Analytica exist on both sides of the aisle, working to categorize voters individually so campaigns know with precision who is really persuadable, whether they are likely to vote and what issues will move them. Facebook ads that were placed by Russian entities in 2016 were reportedly not just placed in key states, but also targeted specifically to Americans who were deemed persuadable by the modeling process that firms like Cambridge Analytica undertake. According to The Washington Post, “While some of the (Facebook) ads urged support for Republican Donald Trump or attacked Hillary Clinton, others sought to exploit divisive social issues. The Russians used Facebook tools to precisely target people with strong feelings about gun rights, African American political activism, illegal immigration or other issues that might affect how Americans cast their ballots.”
By using Facebook and Twitter in 2016, Russian operators were keeping up with current best practices in politics. Recent research has shown that person-to-person, friend-to-friend contact on social media is highly persuasive.
During the leadup to the 2016 presidential election, the Russians spent several million dollars to build an operation to disrupt our election. We know that the troll farm called the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia, had a monthly budget of over a million U.S. dollars. They spent over $100,000 on Facebook ads alone in a few key states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. According to CNN, “Some of the Russian ads appeared highly sophisticated in their targeting of key demographic groups in the areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal.” With the country as narrowly divided as it is, and the margin in the last election as close as it was, the Russians would not have had to change many votes to have a huge impact.
Imagine being the Russian intelligence officer in Moscow charged with understanding how a modern American campaign is run, and then constructing an influence operation to influence the election. The first thing this officer would have done would have been to build a team of Russian intelligence officers who had experience against the American target.
But even with a team of such experts, and even with the pervasiveness of social media providing a lens into American society and the political eddies and currents therein, it would have been a challenging endeavor indeed to run such a wide-ranging, complex operation only from Moscow. Which are the key battleground states, and which specific voters are the most persuadable? Who could provide such modeling data? Which themes resound best within the diverse American population, and how do you specifically target voting blocks with the greatest efficiency?
Those best positioned to answer these and other arcane questions are those directly involved in the American domestic political process. We believe the canny Russian intelligence officer would have at least considered soliciting the services – either overtly or covertly – of a U.S. political consultant to advise on such questions.
In 2016, slightly more than 100,000 votes for Trump across three states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — were enough to provide his winning margin in the Electoral College. In Michigan, a change of less than three votes per precinct would have altered the results. For a Russian intelligence officer contemplating whether to invest time and money in a similar influence operation this year, such numbers would be awfully tempting: Trump’s edge in those states represents less than 1 percent of the votes cast in the election. It’s not at all unreasonable to think an aggressive Russian effort could reach that share of the vote.
That means it is highly likely Putin’s intelligence services are well on their way to causing more electoral disruption not just this year, but also in the 2020 presidential elections. While Russia’s favored candidate won in 2016, domestic politics ended up tying Trump’s hands on any new Russia-friendly policies. For now, Trump knows that being too friendly with Putin could help Robert Mueller’s investigation and perhaps cost him the White House.
But even though Russia policy hasn’t changed much, Putin still almost certainly sees his influence operation as a success. A primary goal of attempting to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere in the West is to create chaos, to show that liberal democracies are morally and politically bereft and corrupt and to provide both American liberals and conservatives with their own set of facts. And Putin was indeed successful in converting political fissures in America and Europe into political chasms.
What we can expect is that the Russians will look for new and different ways to influence the 2018 mid-term elections – which for many Americans is happening right now in the form of early primaries. And while many may say it’s only a mid-term election, all of the House of Representatives is up for grabs, and a third of the senate on the ballot. Key spots in leadership and important members of committees that deal with foreign affairs, military and intelligence will be decided.
Russian intelligence is likely already at work trying out strategies and tactics for later in the year. By the end of June, over half the states in the union will have conducted primary elections to nominate candidates for November. Shortly after Labor Day, many states begin early and absentee voting for the general election.
The Russian security services understand that our government is not well prepared at the federal or state levels to detect electronic meddling. In February of this year, before he left his post as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson noted of the Russians’ election interference that, “Once they decide they are going to do it it’s very difficult to preempt it.”
Also in February, Virginia Senator Mark Warner stated publicly he doubted the U.S. was ready to defend against a Russian attack on our midterm elections. “We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter future attacks. But we still do not have a plan,” Warner said. NSA Director Adm. Mike Rogers stated, “Clearly, what we have done has not been enough.” These statements would not have been overlooked by Russian intelligence.
The attention on the 2016 influence operations means Russia will need to look for new digital advertising avenues to void detection, and probably more layers to obfuscate the original source of their content. Putin’s operatives are likely to continue to try to hack key individuals and party committees in an attempt to gather embarrassing information like they did in 2016.
Other things to look out for would be mailings, flyers and leaks to news organizations with embarrassing information (gleaned both from opposition research as well as illegal hacking) and rallies like they organized in 2016 to hype controversial topics so as to motivate voters in a negative fashion. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to determine who is organizing those rallies and other similar political activities until after the fact, when computer forensics have been run.
Another gambit to watch for in the Russian influence cover operations playbook would be paying political operatives or research firms such as Cambridge Analytica, witting or unwitting, large amounts of cash for their on-the-ground assistance and advice. In essence this would resemble what in American politics is known as an independent expenditure campaign, the same kind waged legally in the U.S. by wealthy individuals and corporations on both sides of the aisle – but possibly illegal if done by a foreign government, depending on what they do with that information. The Russian intelligence officer responsible for the influence operation would have been remiss not to at least consider using these mechanisms. There is no proof yet that this occurred – but then, that’s a hallmark of covert operations.
It is critically important that Americans understand the lessons of the Russian attack on our 2016 presidential elections. The Kremlin was in all likelihood able to cheaply but effectively leverage the American appetite for social media towards the candidate Putin preferred: Donald Trump. This is not necessarily to say that the Russian involvement invalidates the elections; this would have required cooperation and collusion with the Russians on the part of the Trump campaign. Until Mueller finishes his investigation, the jury is still out on this issue.
Donald Trump and his presidency produce a stream of confusion and chaos on almost a daily basis. The media across the political spectrum then dutifully reports and amplifies the chaos. But it is crucial that the American public, and American election and security officials, not become distracted by the latest outrageous story coming from the White House. Our own intelligence services, cooperating with allied services, need to collect more on Putin’s plans and intentions regarding our upcoming elections. Law enforcement, specifically the FBI, should aggressively seek out those cooperating with Russia, and our legal system should then prosecute them. We need to focus on the fact that Putin and his intelligence services are almost certainly working against us right now, authoring new attacks on the American electoral system, and by extension, American democracy.
Start simple: when we see an article or an ad about a candidate or party, we need to ask who authored it or paid for it – to interrogate the information we are being offered, before forwarding it or sharing it with our friends and colleagues.
We ignore these attacks, or become distracted with the Trump administration’s latest political maelstrom, at our peril.