U.S. 2020 Elections and the Shadow of Russian Cyber Interference

Sachin Tiwari
September 15, 2019


Image Courtesy: usnews.com

US political circle, investigation agencies, and the private sector are preparing, keeping in view the reports of the possibility of large scale interference in the upcoming 2020 Presidential elections. The testimony by Robert Mueller, special investigator, in US Congress shortly after the release of a controversial report on Russian interference in 2016 elections highlighted that the efforts for interference had been continued by Russia, and includes other states as well. While the domestic political focus has been on investigating collusion of President Trump with Russia, various American states, local bodies, investigation and security agencies are rushing to secure the election guard for 2020, especially with 2016 elections in the background. 

The 2016 US Presidential elections were unprecedented due to the involvement of a foreign actor’s capability to interfere in the US elections. This incident highlighted the vulnerability of the election system, which affected the voter database and was itself affected by large-scale disinformation campaign on social media. Several investigation committees were formed, including highlighted investigation under special counsel Robert S. Mueller, for examining the issue of alleged Russian interference in 2016 elections. At a hearing in the US Congress, testimony by Facebook and reports by investigation agencies pointed to widespread fake accounts owned by Internet Research Agency with links to the Russian Government. The Senate intelligence committee concluded direct involvement of Russia.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, in her book, Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President provides a different outlook to the aforementioned. According to Jamieson, the Presidential election of 2016 was affected through the ‘amplification’ of the messages hosted by Russian affiliated groups at critical times during the election campaign, providing an advantage to the Trump campaign. The usage of the social media for disinformation in the election to the highest office of the US government by a foreign government displayed a divided political consensus and raised critical questions about democracy itself. Also, this matter has been affected by deniability by Russia of its involvement. 

The matter is not unique to the 2016 US elections; instead, the 2008 elections also witnessed interference by Russia with the targeting of Obama campaign. Similar tactics have been found in various European democracies including the Brexit campaign, the French Presidential election in 2017 where the Russian supported groups spreading propaganda. 

It is critical to understand the role of foreign interference in the elections through various digital tools such as Autobots, deep fakes, and system vulnerabilities in an interconnected system. The use of the deep fakes, fully synthesized videos or tweaks in the audio of someone’s voice messages are ways in which foreign agents can affect the campaign process. The manipulated videos of US President Barack Obama and Donald Trump have been used too. The other factors include the role of the major technology firms such as Cambridge Analytica with data mining of the social media profiles for providing an advantage to the political groups. 

The unique challenge is the type of security environment which is being created is a response to cyber vulnerabilities, both in securing information and infrastructure. As thinker Paul Virilio in his seminal work Speed and Politics suggests that the speed and technology have led to a heightened sense of security, reflected in the politics of security. The situation leads to apprehension over security, and people become fearful of the events and their broader security environment. The true message in the post-truth era is hard to decipher, and fallacies are being passed as truth in a divided society. For instance, malicious actors linked to Russia created fake accounts to promote false narrative on issues like abortion, racial discrimination, immigration, and gun control. The Russian activities are part of the broader strategic environment resembling the Cold War strategy, except spying has been replaced with new age disinformation war with the adversary.

In response, the 2018 US National Cyber Strategy reflects a more aggressive stance with a shift from ‘active defense’ to ‘defend forward.’ A significant development was the US cyber command conducting an offensive cyberattack against the Russian Internet Agency (IRA) on the day of the 2018-midterm elections in a show of America’s cyber capabilities. In other developments, the New York Times investigation revealed the US hacking out the Russian electric grid, an indication of the changed policy towards the incoming cyberattacks from adversaries. The same action also enables the Russian to develop and deploy cyberattack on the US critical infrastructure, which is still not preferred by nation-states, especially concerning the safety of the civilian targets and the damage from it. 

The cyber exchanges between the US and Russia reflect a deep antagonism which has the possibility of spreading to other countries, even as military capabilities are being developed in the cyber domain by other countries. The conflict in cyberspace represents a multiplicity of tactics such as disinformation being employed to sow discord and affect democracy. Also, there is a risk of normalization of the cyber attack on the adversary’s critical infrastructure in the future. Legislative efforts are being taken towards reforming the reliability of the election security system, and guidelines for social media companies in the wake of 2020 elections with divided political consensus between democrats and republicans to implement it. The broader tensed environment in the light of the deteriorating relationship between the US and other states, like Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea is expected to spill over to the cyber domain, with grave implications for the US presidential elections in 2020. 

*** The author is currently a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***