Election Interference and the Emperor's New Clothes

As we approach the 2020 elections, an examination of Russian influence operations in 2016 suggests we are still vulnerable but not in ways people may expect. Explanations of what happened in 2016 usually involve two general hypotheses: the "Svengali effect," where hapless citizens are mesmerized by evil external forces, or "The Emperor's New Clothes," where influence operations hold up a mirror for the voting public to see political nakedness. Naturally, the Svengali effect is easiest to accept, but it is also wrong.

Why is the Svengali narrative so mesmerizing? It shifts responsibility for an unexpected defeat to an external source. Weak campaigning and unbalanced announcements by Comey explain the 2016 outcome more than Russian interference, but this interference exacerbated and accelerated tensions in ways that still reverberate today. The hope that the 2016 election was the result of external interference, and that if that interference is blocked, we can go back to business as usual misses the point of why influence operations are effective. It is not an exaggeration to say that for a broad swathe of the population, the United States is experiencing its worst social crisis in a century (when measured by income inequality, disparities in health care and education, or indicators like suicide rates) and a significant portion of the population feels discontent, even despair.

Anyone with experience in creating or recruiting opposition groups knows that a disaffected population is the best source of agents, activists, or insurgents. In 2016, disaffection in the United States was the result of a sense among many voters of disinterest and abandonment by political elites in the face of economic hardship. Multiple polls suggest that large segments of American society felt abandoned by their elected leaders. Discontent is what makes information operations effective. The large pool of disaffected voters provides an environment for covert political action.

Public discontent is the principal explanation for any Russian success here and in Europe. It also remains unaddressed. This discontent that the Russians exploited remains a major vulnerability for democracies. It is the source of populism (an ideology that contends that elites are out of touch with the concerns of citizens) in this country and others, and a rewarding target for manipulation. Solutions that only aim at the machinery of elections, such as interfering with the electoral machinery or using bots to spread propaganda on social media, misunderstand influence operations and do not address diminish this central political vulnerability.

Populist episodes occur when citizens feel that their government no longer serves them. Populism surged at the end of the nineteenth century when the United States entered its first Gilded Age (we are now in the second). This earlier populism was also accompanied by racism and anti-immigrant sentiment (although the immigrants were then Irish, Italian, and Eastern European). Nineteenth-century populism had broader public appeal and was more explicit in its criticism of Wall Street. (Read William Jennings Bryan's 1896 "Cross of Gold" speech, on how American farmers and workers were crucified by global finance.) What is different this time is that a foreign entity is using social media and amplify and exploit domestic populism.

Russian intelligence services are keen students of American society and have watched it closely and with hostile intent for decades. Their observations reflect their own cognitive biases and expectations—they, like the Chinese intelligence services, believe that “House of Cards” is a documentary. But if there had not been widespread discontent, Russian messaging would have been largely ignored, like China's influence campaign in Taiwan. Russia's message in 2016 was not new. Before social media, Russian agents would sneak from an embassy or consulate in the dark of night to stuff mailboxes with a few hundred letters containing disinformation. Or they would plant stories in print media outlets that few people read. The internet and social media gave immense amplification to these techniques, allowing disinformation to reach millions rather than dozens, and to better target susceptible audiences.

Russia sees the parlous state of Western democratic politics as an opportunity to achieve long-standing goals: to weaken the United States and damage NATO and the transatlantic alliance, and to re-establish its dominance in what it calls the “near abroad.” From a Russian government perspective, these are reasonable goals. The Russians have the most advanced doctrine for information warfare. Their ”New Generation Warfare" uses disinformation, propaganda, and above all, the ease of access to foreign audiences that the internet provides to disrupt Western politics. It could also be described as "New Style Insurgency." Valeri Gerasimov, chief of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff, said that " nonmilitary options have come to play a greater role in achieving political and strategic goals and, in some situations, are greatly superior to the power of weapons.”

Russia used the internet and social media's capacity to amplify and exacerbate existing discontent and magnify their traditional efforts at disinformation. (Jaclyn Kerr’s work on this is noteworthy.) The Russians have astutely taken advantage of the surge in nationalist and populist sentiment around the world. Unaddressed dissatisfaction over globalization gave them opportunities. Appeals to nationalism combined with unsubtle racism have been an effective tactic. But the Russians did not create racism, nationalism, or populism, which are a hostile reaction to globalization, nor are they responsible for Western governments' inability to address the harm globalization has done to many citizens. Since 2016, other foreign opponents have begun to explore the use of political interference. While their tactics and goals differ from Russia in 2016, one objective is the same—undercut the legitimacy of democratic governance.

We do not want to overstate the effectiveness of the Russian effort in shaping the 2016 results. Survey data shows that more important causes for the 2016 outcome were weak campaigning and the unbalanced Comey interventions (the FBI was investigating both campaigns, but only made this public for one). In other words, if the Russians had done nothing, the election outcome would have been the same. If the only issue in 2016 had been Russian interference, it would have been a much closer race, and the outcome might have been different. Russian efforts only amplified voter dissatisfaction with candidates and with policy.

Research on the political effect of the internet suggests that fake news and other social media campaigns do not change people’s minds. They confirm existing beliefs and exacerbate existing fears and conflicts. Russia did not create populism, but its tactics sought to exploit populist discontent. Democracies (not just the United States) have not addressed inequalities in opportunity and wealth and the steady erosion of the economic well-being of many citizens. This is one reason why an outsider was able to sweep aside establishment candidates in both parties. Not addressing discontent leaves democracies vulnerable, and fixing voting machines or guarding against hacking does not change this.

The United States and its allies have been slow to respond to Russian actions and to find ways to counter them. Russia cleverly exploits both popular discontent and protection for freedom of speech to create a powerful counternarrative to Western ideas of progress and governance. It is unlikely that Russian tactics will be as effective in 2020—too many people are aware of election interference. But this does not mean Russia won't use these tactics again or find new ways to manipulate how Americans think about their leaders.

The companion to blaming Russia is the surprise of Western elites at the degree of public dissatisfaction with the status quo and traditional ruling parties. This still contributes to political vulnerability. Nor have democracies adjusted to how the internet has changed the requirements for politics. Digital politics are more direct, less hierarchical, and offer tangible connections between candidates and voters. The current president is a master. Others are playing catch-up, but a few have only adopted the form, not the substance, of digital politics, as when some politician sends synthetic messages obviously drafted by staff in the hopes of wooing voters. The wooden, evasive language used in political discourse does not win hearts and minds.

Discontent is what makes information operations effective. If discontent is not addressed, democratic politics remain vulnerable. Difficult as it may be, political leaders in the United States will need to reduce the causes of unrest and defuse populist sentiments in order to reduce the effectiveness of foreign election interference. While the mistakes of 2016 are unlikely to be repeated, the best way to defeat external electoral manipulation is to deny foreign interferers potential sympathizers.

A reassessment of cause and effect does not mean that the United States should ignore Russian interference in elections (as it did in 2016), let social media companies off the hook for irresponsible practices, or stop hardening electoral machinery. It means that these steps, while useful, are by themselves not sufficient. Defending against political interference requires more than strengthening the mechanisms of electoral systems or forcing social media to behave. These are worthy goals, but they only address the symptoms. Influence operations work best when there is existing discontent for hostile messaging to exploit. If we mistake symptoms for disease, our remedies will not protect us. It's your brain that's being hacked, not your computer.

James Andrew Lewis is a senior vice president and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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James Andrew Lewis
Senior Vice President; Pritzker Chair; and Director, Strategic Technologies Program