Moscow’s hacking and disinformation tactics have evolved since 2016, while Americans help spread doubts about the November election.
Russian operatives are using a sneakier, more sophisticated version of their 2016 playbook to undermine the November election — and this time, groups inside and outside the U.S. are furthering their goal of sowing chaos.
Kremlin-backed operatives are flooding social media with fake accounts and stoking racial divisions around topics like Black Lives Matter. Articles in state-owned Russian media with millions of U.S. readers online seek to dampen Joe Biden’s appeal among progressives and echo President Donald Trump’s unsupported claims about voting fraud.
At the same time, Russian state-backed hackers are waging cyberattacks against political parties, campaigns, consultants and others tied to the U.S. elections — using more elaborate deceptions than in 2016, Microsoft said last week.
So far, the 2020 race hasn’t featured any obvious repeats of the mass hacking and dumping of confidential documents that undermined Hillary Clinton at key moments during the 2016 campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies later blamed that breach on a covert Kremlin effort to torpedo the Democratic nominee and help Trump win.
But security researchers, former intelligence officials and lawmakers now worry that the Russians may still have a hand they haven’t played.
“One thing we know that happened in 2016 was Russia, particularly with misinformation and disinformation, tried to exacerbate those divisions that we see play out in real time in America,” Senate Intelligence Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.) told an audience at a cybersecurity conference last week. “I’m very, very concerned in these last 50-plus days whether Russia could try to exacerbate those kinds of racial divisions again.”
In some ways, Russia’s job is easier than it was in 2016. American, Chinese and Iranian copycats are now pumping out falsehoods likely to seed the same divisions and doubts about the legitimacy of the election, often mimicking tactics first deployed by the Kremlin.
And the biggest threat this year may be Americans themselves. Many have embraced a deluge of fringe ideas and misinformation to a degree that may dwarf those foreign efforts. Extremists in the U.S. have adopted much of Moscow’s online strategy, including creating fake online personas to pump out falsehoods. Case in point: The QAnon conspiracy theory, which alleges a plot by elite pedophiles and the “deepstate” to overthrow Trump, has gone so mainstream it’s poised to send adherents to Congress.
“The scale, scope and, most importantly, the impact of domestic disinformation is far greater than any foreign government could do to the United States,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks online influence campaigns — and was itself the victim of recent Russian cyberattacks.
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