Officials and disinformation experts warn that overstating the threat posed by foreign spies and hackers plays into their narrative that they have the power to sow chaos, and undermines the ability to fashion the most effective and proportionate response.
“My biggest concern is that we give a foreign adversary more credit than they’re actually due,” said Brig. Gen. Joe Hartman, the election security lead for the military’s U.S. Cyber Command, which is working with the National Security Agency to protect the election from foreign threats.
Whether it’s Russia, Iran or others, he said, their attempts so far to push disinformation have fallen flat. “Their platforms have been exposed,” he said in an interview. “Social media companies have taken down their personas — in most cases their personas have gained very little traction.”
That is not to say that the threat should be discounted, experts said, adding that it’s important to be transparent about foreign threats, but also to put them into context.
“We risk ultimately helping an adversary if we understate the threat or overstate the threat,” said disinformation expert Thomas Rid of Johns Hopkins University. “But we can’t ignore it. So the only solution is to be as sober, fact-based and nuanced as possible.”
That can be challenging in a country in which disinformation itself has become a “wedge issue,” said Rid, author of the book “Active Measures.” “You say ‘disinformation’ and to one side it means Russia is interfering and the president is amplifying it. To the other side, it means the ‘fake news media’ and Facebook are trying to influence and censor debate.”
Russian government hackers so far have gone after federal, state and municipal government and aviation networks — though not directly at election systems, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security said in an advisory last week.
The hackers worked for the FSB, the Russian security service not the military spy agency, the GRU, which hacked the Democrats in 2016, officials said. The FSB hackers exfiltrated data from two counties, one in California and the other in Indiana. In one case, no election data was known to have been taken and in the second, a small sample of publicly available voter information was stolen, officials told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
“The reality is Russian attempts to interfere in past elections in Britain, France, Ukraine and Montenegro did not achieve their desired results,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of Silverado Policy Accelerator, a public policy think tank, and co-founder of the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which investigated the 2016 GRU hacks. “We should not automatically presume that any future attempts, should they try them, will have any substantive effect.”
Some lawmakers, however, are still nervous.
“The states are way ahead of where they were in 2016, but I don’t think they’re invulnerable,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), in a recent interview. “They need to be doubly vigilant in the coming days. The important point is for the American people to realize that there are forces out there from a variety of countries that are trying to misinform them, intimidate them and otherwise interfere in the election.”
Of all the foreign adversaries, Russia is the most capable of interfering in the election in a way that causes confusion or discord, and that threat may be most acute after Election Day if the outcome is contested, experts say.
“My nightmare scenario is that the Russians have a play ready to go to cast doubt on the results” if Democratic nominee Joe Biden wins or the results are delayed or contested, said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “If they claim without evidence a hack on infrastructure or to have manipulated votes in a chaotic atmosphere where there are lots of conflicting reports about who’s won, you can imagine a scenario where that claim is used by domestic actors to undermine the legitimacy of the election in voters’ minds.”
Much of the disinformation circulating today is driven by domestic actors, including the White House, said Yochai Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Occasionally the Russians may have amplified some of President Trump’s false claims that mail-in ballots are insecure or the pandemic has been stanched, he said. “But I haven’t seen anything meaningful.”
To overstate the effect of Russian efforts, he said, is to enable their success. If policymakers respond out of fear or anger, they risk compounding the problem, he said.
A number of researchers have concluded that the effects of Russian efforts on social media in 2016 likely were overstated, and that by contrast, the Russian hack and subsequent leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta in 2016 arguably had an impact. The leaks led to the resignation of the DNC leadership and disrupted the Democratic convention, and also shaped the media and debate narratives in ways that undermined Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
When it came to social media, Russian-generated posts on Facebook and Twitter were a minuscule fraction of total election-related content in 2016, researchers have found. “There wasn’t enough focused exposure to reach desired target audiences to have made a significant difference in the outcome,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the book “Cyberwar.”
Impact aside, the point is that foreign actors should not be trying to steer the American discourse on hot button topics, said Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor and disinformation expert. “We need to be the ones deciding which direction those conversations go,” he said. “Not the Russians.”