Since 2016, the United States — federal and state governments, social media companies, and the general public — has grappled with understanding mis- and disinformation. The country has learned from the experiences of others and has made progress in identifying fake news, countering disinformation, and securing elections. But the country is still vulnerable.
Russia’s 2016 influence operation reached all 50 states and involved multiple techniques: probing databases, hacking key candidates and institutions, and spreading propaganda on social media. The last of these is the most insidious and challenging due to its complexity, the role of technology as a spreader, and its pervasiveness with people being constantly online.
Russia continues to seek to divide the United States internally and sow discord among its closest allies and partners. The 2016 Russian election meddling and subsequent investigations have consumed the US news cycle for years, and foreign influence operations are far from over (see the latest US intelligence assessment). If the United States wants to prevent future meddling, it needs to deal with the political problem at the core of foreign influence operations: its population’s susceptibility to manipulation.
Importantly, Russia didn’t create any new divisions in the American public. Instead, it merely amplified existing tensions on race, nationalism, immigration, gun control, and LGBTQ+ issues to polarize Americans. This approach fundamentally lessens the level of effort required to influence the population by turning America’s diversity against itself.
Importantly, Russia didn’t create any new divisions in the American public. Instead, it merely amplified existing tensions.
The debate over the extent of the federal government’s role in election security is ongoing. Even though states retain authority over most aspects of election administration, the federal government’s role in US elections has been growing, and now includes identifying and understanding external threats, coordinating information, allocating resources, and sharing best practices. Confining the federal government’s role to traditional security concerns, as some suggest, totally ignores the changing environment, abdicates responsibility for foreign policy, and is frankly a disservice to Americans who deserve elections free of foreign influence (and who do want the government to take responsibility for combating foreign threats).
The upcoming presidential election has renewed interest in securing America’s democracy, but technical considerations dominate the conversation. Securing technical election infrastructure is undeniably important. Events like Russia’s state-sponsored cyberattacks in the 2016 presidential election and the 2020 Iowa caucus app debacle revealed just how technologically lagging US election infrastructure is. But secure systems will be irrelevant if voters come to the polls (or send in their mail-in ballots) already under foreign influence. And no amount of securing voter rolls and tabulation systems will save Americans from the type of foreign influence experienced during and after 2016.
Politically, the United States faces the same dilemma all democracies do in balancing counter-disinformation efforts against freedom of speech. But the United States’ diversity of public thought gives Russia numerous opportunities to exploit political fissures. Unlike homogenous countries such as Finland, the US federalist system is a diverse target made up of states with varied political, racial, and socioeconomic compositions.
The United States’ unique brand of federalism means there are multiple options to counter foreign election interference — starting with understanding the problem. A nonpartisan national study should identify which states are most vulnerable, along which political fissures, and in what localities, as well as distinguish cross-cutting patterns. Based on this information, successive actions could include establishing or giving an existing body, such as the National Security Council, the authority to oversee and direct federal resourcing to vulnerable states and governors. Governors’ and secretaries of state’s offices in vulnerable states could use federal funds to tailor their own response to foreign influence operations, whether through public education or counter-influence campaigns. Alternatively, US federal agencies and/or states could mirror the public-private partnerships that have emerged in the critical infrastructure space. Yet another option could be to leverage the National Governors Association to share best practices for countering foreign influence operations, expanding a practice already begun through policy memos regarding mis- and disinformation amid COVID-19. Any one, or a combination, of these options would go a long way toward countering influence operations in the United States.
The 2016 election made clear that the United States is susceptible to foreign influence, but now the country needs to grapple with how its greatest assets — the Constitution and diversity — make it uniquely vulnerable. If the United States is going to protect its elections, it needs to start addressing malign influence with the same energy spent securing systems on election day. The 2020 presidential election is an obvious opportunity for a renewed, more robust Russian influence operation, but every federal, state, and local election from here on out will be too. And if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that local and state government matters. The concept for federal support to the states for elections exists; now it just needs to evolve in response to new threats.
Carolyn De Roster is a national security professional based in the Washington, DC area. She holds a BA in International Relations from William & Mary.
This article was prepared by the author in their personal capacity. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, opinion, or position of their employer.