A campaign linked to Russia aims to manipulate this year’s elections in the United States and Europe. Trump needs to let the intelligence professionals do their work.
The public debate over COVID-19 has been dominated, understandably, by the pandemic’s impact on public health and the economy. However, there is a third impact that is dramatically underappreciated: the danger to democracy posed by pandemic-related disinformation, whether it is used to weaken democratic checks on power or interfere with elections. Disinformation—including by foreign state actors such as Russia—threatens to interfere with elections scheduled to take place in 2020 in Europe and the United States. Effectively countering these attempts requires strong trans-Atlantic policy and intelligence cooperation. U.S. President Donald Trump should abandon his dysfunctional approach to Europe and let the career professionals do their work.
In the United States, voters are understandably concerned about the health risk of entering crowded public polling stations. Election workers, many of whom are elderly volunteers, are rightly reluctant to perform their important responsibilities. Many U.S. states have postponed their presidential primaries until May and June, hoping that the coronavirus danger will have subsided by then. States that have barreled ahead with primary contests, such as Wisconsin, have experienced political, logistical, and legal chaos
In Europe, various elections in France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, North Macedonia, and elsewhere have been postponed because of the threat of infection. Other political contests in Iceland, Belarus, Austria, Bosnia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and other countries that are set to occur later this year could also be impacted if the pandemic has not significantly receded. Poland, which intends to move forward with a presidential election in May, is one of the few countries defying calls to postpone business as usual. (Postponing elections is not to be done lightly, of course, and in some cases—such as the U.S. presidential election—they cannot be moved at all.)
This emergency situation has created an inviting environment for the spread of both misinformation, which is simply inaccurate information, and disinformation, which is deliberately false and intended to disrupt, cause confusion, and suppress the vote.
The pandemic feeds into the existing threat to Western democracies from foreign actors, notably Russia. For many years now, the Kremlin has been actively interfering in democratic elections around the world. Its techniques include hacking political targets to steal sensitive information, selectively releasing that information to the public, supporting preferred candidates, and propping up destabilizing or extremist political movements. And, of course, it has spread disinformation through a combination of state-run propaganda outlets and fake online personas on social media as well. A recently released three-year review by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee unanimously found that the U.S. intelligence community’s joint assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was sound and apolitical.
We know that Russia was already attempting to influence the 2020 election prior to the coronavirus pandemic by causing confusion and division. The latest Kremlin efforts have included hacking targets related to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, advancing conspiracy theories to counter established facts regarding Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and even providing support to far-right organizations in an effort to incite white nationalist violence in the United States. In the fall of 2019, posts on Instagram appeared using strategies and tactics very similar to those of the Internet Research Agency, a Russia-based purveyor of online influence operations that has been linked to the Kremlin, and which was a key disinformation player in 2016. Facebook, which played a key role in enabling Russian disinformation in 2016, subsequently announced that it had taken down tens of thousands of posts across 50 IRA-linked accounts from Facebook and Instagram.
On top of that, the European Union’s External Action Service, which investigates and combats disinformation online, has documented numerous cases of disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic linked to pro-Kremlin media, and it found that a significant disinformation campaign by Russian state media and pro-Kremlin outlets is ongoing.The U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center has issued similar warnings.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, China has also been in the coronavirus disinformation game. While some of the objectives of Russia and China might differ—the Kremlin is focused on undermining confidence in Western governments and institutions, while China seems to be more concerned with reshaping the narrative about its role in the pandemic—both countries’ efforts could have a negative impact on Western democracy. Furthermore, China has learned a great deal from the Kremlin’s tactics. Both countries have been pressuring the West to soften its criticism of disinformation, often by claiming a false equivalence between Western media reporting and targeted, state-sponsored influence campaigns.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have, of course, increased the scale of these problems by providing poorly controlled and easily manipulated platforms, and they should be more active in solving them. But to mount a true defense, governments must be active players.
There are three steps the Trump administration should immediately take to help protect the 2020 U.S. elections from disinformation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, in order to ensure widespread participation in the elections, the administration should work with the U.S. Congress to provide funding for state and local education efforts about voting during the pandemic. Russia will be seeking to exploit fears and confusion around the voting process, as it did in 2016 with social media posts falsely telling people they could text in their vote. Voter education campaigns in multiple languages should inform citizens about the steps that have been taken to ensure public health during the election process, best practices for safe and healthy voting, relevant rule changes, and the availability of mail-in and absentee voting. This will go a long way in ensuring the security of America’s vote.
Second, Trump needs to stop issuing misleading and overly optimistic assessments about the disease. In any crisis, one of the most important services a government can provide is a steady stream of reliable and trusted information. This is even more critical when foreign adversaries are seeking to exploit weaknesses and undermine trust. If citizens believe the head of state is manipulating information for political advantage, it creates a dangerous level of distrust that can be exploited.
Third, the president needs to change completely his uncooperative attitude toward Europe. At a time when the trans-Atlantic relationship should be a source of strength in combating the coronavirus—especially through ramped-up information-sharing and the coordinated development of treatments and vaccines—the administration’s tendency to go it alone on global affairs and treat the European Union and key members such as Germany with hostility has weakened collective defenses against pandemic-driven falsehoods.Trump’s initial move to cut off travel from Europe to the United States without even consulting with U.S. allies (as generations of presidents would have done before him), and without evidence that such a ban would be effective, was just one example of his reflexively anti-EU approach, even in the middle of a catastrophic public health crisis.
The United States must be a driver of cooperation within NATO, and between NATO and the EU, on these new threats that Western democracies are jointly facing. Better cooperation, including the sharing of best practices between the U.S. government and the EU’s External Action Service (and similar agencies at the national level in Europe), will be critical for staying ahead of Russian disinformation efforts now seeking to use COVID-19 to undermine and influence elections.