The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Enough finger-pointing on Russian interference. Here’s how to prepare for 2020.

An election worker holds a roll of "I Voted" stickers during the New Hampshire primary at Parker-Varney Elementary School in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 11. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Suzanne Spaulding is the senior adviser for homeland security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. From 2013 to 2017, she was the undersecretary for cybersecurity and infrastructure at the Department of Homeland Security.

The November election is just around the corner, and it’s clear the Russian government continues to wage an assault on our electoral process. But this time, it has had four years to practice and enhance its tactics. Finger-pointing about which candidate Vladimir Putin prefers doesn’t help; instead, we should try to better anticipate and understand how Russian information operations are intended to work against democracy.

Inauthentic online activity never stopped after Russia deployed its troll farms, hackers and advertising campaigns on social media in 2016. But the Russians have grown more adept at amplifying domestic voices and exploiting weaknesses of our own making. This maximizes the reach and perceived authenticity of divisive rhetoric. Moreover, the Russians no longer need to post during the Russian workday. They intersperse human activity with bot networks that infiltrate online conversations and distort legitimate online dialogues.

The Russian government may no longer pay for online ads in rubles, but the lack of legal requirements for transparency — some of which could have been addressed with the stalled Honest Ads Act — means that there are still loopholes whereby bad actors can push dark money into politics. ​Russia uses its state-sponsored media outlets such as RT and Sputnik to push one-sided narratives, conspiracy theories and half-truths to its audiences. These reinforce and are fed by social media accounts that create pipelines for disinformation. Local media, often trusted alternatives to mainstream media, are also vulnerable, as they often don’t have large fact-checking departments. And because local media is more trusted, the Russian information operations include creating fake “local” news outlets.

We should expect to see “cheap fake” and “deepfake” videos, which are alterations of real videos made to convincingly show something that may not have happened. These videos are less likely to “prove” a lie than to create noise, thus contributing conflicting evidence to overwhelm members of the public and push them toward a post-truth reality.

Traditional cyberattacks are of concern as well. Russia was reportedly behind the hack on Ukrainian gas company Burisma. It was also brazenly involved in the hack and leak of emails in the run-up to the most recent French presidential election. We should prepare for a mix of both real and fake documents to be leaked. And, of course, we must prepare for attempts to hack election infrastructure and ransomware attacks to disrupt voting.

So what is the Russian government seeking to achieve? Putin’s objectives go beyond elections. He targets a few audiences with the same basic narrative: Democracy is corrupt, hypocritical and chaotic. For his own population and in countries where the United States and Russia compete for influence, the goal is to convince people to not desire Western-style democracy. The message for Americans is more pernicious. Putin’s goal is to weaken us by exploiting and exacerbating division and distrust. He seeks to make it harder to galvanize and sustain public support for action that might prevent Russia from acting in ways that undermine U.S. interests and security.

By undermining trust in institutions such as the media and the courts — institutions we look to as arbiters of truth — Putin hopes to get us to give up on the idea of truth and on the idea that we can hold our institutions accountable. He wants us to despair and disengage. Without an informed and engaged citizenry, democracy cannot function.

So how does this play out in the election? Russia will likely try to exacerbate division by amplifying the least-centrist candidates. Russian propaganda outlets are seizing on existing narratives that these “mavericks” are not getting a fair shake because the corrupt system, controlled by the “political elite” and mainstream media, is working against them. Russia’s activities could support a post-election assertion, depending on the outcome, that the election was rigged — including claims that election infrastructure was hacked, discourse was inauthentic, and disruptions to voting were targeted against a certain candidate or group of voters.

In a close election, the courts could be called upon to adjudicate processes used to settle the outcome. The Kremlin has already been working to undermine public trust in our courts, again often amplifying domestic voices. What more powerful way to weaken America and undermine the appeal of democracy than to threaten the peaceful transition of power?

Americans must understand what Putin hopes to achieve. It’s not just about which candidate Russia may support. Democracy is under attack, and we must all fight to defend it by refusing to give up. Hold our institutions accountable and believe in our power to bring about change. Vote. Know there may be disruptions and claims of corruption. Insist on impartial processes to resolve issues, and, when all is said and done, accept the outcome of the election. That’s the American way of beating Russia at its own game.

Read more:

David Von Drehle: Did Vladimir Putin turn America on itself?

Max Boot: Why the Russians still prefer Trump

Vladimir Kara-Murza: Saying ‘no’ to Vladimir Putin

Suzanne Spaulding: Don’t overlook the Kremlin’s threats to our courts