If there’s one thing the Mueller report made crystal clear, it’s that Russian interference efforts were just as widespread and damaging as previous reports had indicated. From stealing internal Democratic emails to creating massively popular Facebook and Twitter profiles — some of which were then amplified by higher-ups in Donald Trump’s campaign — the interference efforts represented an unprecedented assault on American election integrity.
And as America gears up for another presidential election in 2020, there’s little reason to think the Kremlin’s operations won’t return. If anything, they might be worse — and make use of a slate of new technologies that weren’t available in 2016.
“I think we’ll see [something] like Spinal Tap: ‘Now, let’s turn it up to 11,’” Kevin T. Carroll, a former CIA officer and former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security during the first two years of the Trump administration, told ThinkProgress. “They keep pushing until they get push-back.”
Those tactics, as both the Mueller report and years of investigative journalism have shown, circled around both hacking and social media interference. According to experts ThinkProgress spoke with, there’s little reason to think those tactics will change moving forward.
Tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have been more proactive about removing fake foreign content aimed at meddling in American political campaigns. But as ThinkProgress reported, Instagram blocked a number of popular fake accounts in 2018 that they believed may be linked to Russian trolling operations, including at least one that achieved six-figure follower counts. (Even well into 2017, Instagram was allowing some accounts that appeared related to separate Facebook pages that had already been removed.) These accounts weren’t taken down until the day of the 2018 midterms, meaning that they pushed their content — some political, some not — right up until the final wave of votes were cast.
Those meddling efforts even extended to YouTube, where Russian trolls claimed to reveal their own talking points, trying to sow that much more confusion ahead of the vote — a tactic that Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab, told ThinkProgress will likely continue moving forward.
“It looks very much like meta-trolling,” Nimmo said. “You don’t need to actually throw the election if you can make people believe you’ve thrown the election.”
As with the 2016 election, there’s no indication the trolling attempts in 2018 changed any votes. But given that Russian trolls caught Facebook, which owns Instagram, napping both times, there’s every reason to expect the tactic to continue.
“We will see attempts from the Russian side, but it’s too early to predict how they will play out,” Nimmo said, noting that the United States will likely also see similar from other actors both foreign and domestic. “The cards aren’t that clear yet: what Russia thinks, what the Russian government thinks would be a preferable outcome. It certainly seems like Trump is leaving an awful lot of geopolitical space for them, but it depends on who the challenger is going to be.”
Still, as it pertains to foreign social media interference efforts in 2020, “Russia will be a key player,” Nimmo said.
Higher-ups in the U.S. government believe the same. In the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats noted that “Russia’s social media efforts will continue to focus on aggravating social and racial tensions, undermining trust in authorities, and criticizing perceived anti-Russia politicians.”
There is some evidence that U.S. officials have grasped how to deter the types of Russian trolls who created, say, a “Blacktivist” Facebook account that had tens of thousands more followers than the official “Black Lives Matter” page, or who convinced Trump to retweet their work. The New York Times reported that the United States “disrupted” the servers associated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency after the midterm elections.
However, government officials have thus far been coy about just how successful that operation was, or exactly what tactics they employed. “A declassified after-action report on the 2018 countermeasures by the United States government was expected to be released early this year but has never been published,” the Times added.
Of course, fake social media pages weren’t the only operations Russian actors utilized to interfere in American elections. As the Mueller report conveyed, often in granular detail, Russian hackers succeeded in their digital Watergate operations, thieving internal Democratic communications and blasting them out via fake fronts and groups like WikiLeaks. Given how easily the Russian hackers made off with thousands of documents, there’s little reason to think they won’t attempt to do so again.
This reality makes taking a pledge to not use hacked materials, as we saw from the Democratic National Committee earlier this week, that much more important. And it makes claims from Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, that there’s “nothing wrong with taking information from Russians” that much more concerning.
Old strategy, new tactics
Despite its length, the Mueller report focused on only two prongs of Russia’s 2016 interference or influence efforts. However, those operations weren’t limited to fraudulent Facebook pages and Hillary Clinton’s emails.
From feting Green Party candidate Jill Stein at a gala for Russian propaganda outlet RT to hosting American secessionists from states like Texas and California, Russian operatives reached out to fringe movements on all sides of the American political spectrum. Part of these efforts — arguably the most successful, given the proximity it provided to Republican leadership — was Russian agent Maria Butina’s moves to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA), in order to create what she described as a “channel” of communication to and from Russia.
As Robert Anderson, former assistant director at the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, recently wrote, Butina’s activities showed clear signs of cultivation operations, both for gathering intelligence and extending pro-Russian messaging in the United States.
According to Anderson, the information that Butina conveyed to former Russian official Alexander Torshin — who is personally sanctioned by the United States — was “of substantial intelligence value to the Russian government.” Anderson added that Russian intelligence services will be able to use this information for years to come in their efforts to spot and assess Americans who may be susceptible to recruitment as foreign intelligence assets.”
It spells out in stark terms why Butina posed a threat to US national security with a heavy focus on three types of intelligence activities: “access agents,” “spot-and-assess” operations, and “back channel lines of communication.” 3/
— Andrew S. Weiss (@andrewsweiss) April 22, 2019
And it hasn’t taken long to determine that those activities continue. Not only have Russian propaganda outlets convinced some of the most prominent American voices among Russian-interference skeptics that appearing on RT is a good idea, but just last month leading evangelical Franklin Graham took a trip to Russia to have a sit-down meeting with with Russian Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who is close to President Vladimir Putin and who has been sanctioned by the United States since 2014 for his role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The trip followed other inroads recently evident between those close to sanctioned Russian officials and the fundamentalist reaches of the American right.
There are, though, two aspects of potential future Russian interference efforts — or efforts from other actors, foreign and domestic — that we didn’t see play out in 2016, but which give government officials and security officials cause for mounting concern.
The first is technological: deepfake videos. That is, videos that are manipulated such that it appears the politician, journalist, or other figure in question is saying or doing something that never actually happened. Think Photoshop, but on steroids.
It’s not as if governmental officials aren’t aware of the looming technical breakthroughs that are set to make deepfakes the future of disinformation. As an article in Foreign Affairs this month, co-authored by former Deputy Director and Acting Director of the CIA Michael Morell, read, “Russian disinformation ahead of the 2016 election pales in comparison to what will soon be possible with the help of deepfakes — digitally manipulated audio or video material designed to be as realistic as possible.”
Morell and his co-author, Stanford University’s Amy Zegart, noted that while intelligence agencies are at least aware of the threat, they nonetheless face an uphill battle. As they wrote:
[U]nlike other forgeries, such as doctored images, deepfakes are uniquely hard to detect, thanks to an AI technique invented by a Google engineer in 2014. Known as “generative adversarial networks,” the approach pits two computer algorithms against each other, one generating images while the other attempts to spot fakes. Because the algorithms learn by competing with each other, any deepfake detectors are unlikely to work for long before being outsmarted. Deception has always been part of espionage and warfare, but not with this level of precision, reach, and speed.
“I believe senior intelligence officials are worried about deepfakes,” Carroll said. “What if somebody puts out something horrible about either candidate immediately before the election? Can you get the computer diagnostics done in time?”
But that’s only one aspect of what may come in 2020 that we didn’t see play out in 2016 or 2018. While a distressingly high number of Democrats believe that Russia outright tampered with votes in 2016, there’s no evidence any votes were changed. There is, however, evidence that Russian operatives sought information on election security systems in all 50 states — which may yet indicate an area of interference efforts to come.
After significant push-back to boosting election security from state-level Republicans in 2016, it appears the United States is finally turning a corner as it pertains to taking election security seriously, as indicated by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) recent about-face about Russian interference. The new Cyber Security and Infrastructure Agency, created in 2018, is at least attempting to raise public awareness of the threats of foreign interference. But the agency is still underfunded and lagging behind on recommending and implementing the most effective countermeasures.
“[Russia in 2016] showed the capability, though not the intention, to muck with the vote totals in state and local election board computers,” Carroll said. “Do they go further this time? We just don’t know. But they didn’t do that electronic reconnaissance of the state and local election board computers for no reason.”