'Russia Doesn't Have To Make Fake News': Biggest Election Threat Is Closer To Home

Sep 29, 2020
Originally published on September 29, 2020 4:51 pm

National security officials say the Kremlin is at it again: Just like in 2016, Russia is using social media to try to undermine the U.S. presidential election, only with even more sophisticated tools.

But this time around, Russia may not have to try so hard. Social media companies and outside experts say in 2020, the biggest threats to the election may be coming from Americans in the form of possible violence, mistruths about mail-in balloting, and misinformation in the wake of possibly delayed election results — not to mention a president who has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the vote.

"In some ways, the people who know the most about how to mislead Americans are other Americans," said Yoel Roth, Twitter's head of site integrity.

NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and NPR technology correspondent Shannon Bond break down some of the key questions:

Q. Where are the biggest foreign threats coming from?

Greg Myre: National security officials and analysts who study this are absolutely clear: Russia is the main foreign threat, and by a long shot. China and Iran are also trying to influence the election but at a much lower level.

The Russians have been attempting to interfere for many years, and their approach keeps evolving. Last time, they hacked into Democratic Party emails and also used automated fake accounts on social media, said Nina Jankowicz, of the Wilson Center and the author of How to Lose the Information War: Russia, Fake News, and the Future of Conflict.

"Russia has pivoted to information laundering, that is planting a narrative with an influential individual who can then amplify that narrative," she said.

In one instance, the Russians created a phony website and paid freelance American journalists to write stories. The Americans didn't know who they were working for. But this was small stuff. There's no evidence so far of a foreign campaign gaining major traction.

The U.S. intelligence community is much better prepared for this election, said Thomas Rid, author of the new book Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare. The CIA and the National Security Agency can legally monitor and take action against a foreign group or individual spreading disinformation. But in the U.S., free speech protections normally prevent that kind of action.

"For some agencies, like the CIA, it's illegal to operate domestically. And for the FBI, it is politically a very hot potato, a very problematic thing to be countering domestic disinformation because it is so political," said Rid.

Q. What are the biggest concerns at this point about domestic disinformation?

Shannon Bond: Security experts are warning that the atmosphere is ripe for disinformation, and there are a lot of false claims and rumors already circulating.

That includes "everything from Qanon [a baseless conspiracy theory] to mobilizations to protest, COVID-19 conspiracies and then ultimately mail-in ballots and voter fraud," said Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent who tracks online security threats at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Researchers and social media platforms say bad actors are capitalizing on the uncertainty created by the pandemic to confuse people about how to vote, undermine confidence in the election results and even threaten violence.

In some cases, they say, would-be foreign meddlers need only amplify falsehoods being spread by U.S. social media users.

"Russia doesn't have to make fake news. They just repeat what conspiracies are coming out of the White House and the administration," Watts said.

Election watchers are particularly concerned about efforts to undermine confidence in voting as President Trump has done repeatedly, with his tweets and Facebook posts claiming, falsely, that mail-in ballots are vulnerable to fraud.

Q. What are the social companies doing?

Bond: Facebook and Twitter have both tightened rules against voting misinformation, casting doubt on the election results and premature claims of victory before results are final.

In Twitter's case, Roth said its most recent changes were "specifically in recognition of some of the recent threats that we've seen emerge around attempts to undermine public confidence in voting techniques like voting by mail."

The companies meet monthly, along with government and law enforcement agencies, to discuss threats and their responses. Facebook and Twitter both say they are prepared to take measures to crack down on content that presents a threat of real-world harm, like violence or voter suppression.

Twitter frequently applies fact-checking labels to President Trump's posts about voting, and Facebook has begun to do the same. That has given fodder to Republican critics of the companies, however, who have long claimed, without clear evidence, that tech platforms are biased against conservatives.

But even as the social media giants are to be taking the threat of disinformation and especially foreign influence more seriously than they did four years ago, critics say they are still too slow. In many cases, posts that break the rules are labeled or removed only after they have spread widely.

Critics say it's not just about whether the platforms set the right rules it's about how they enforce those rules.

This week, former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign condemned Facebook for not removing Trump's false claims about voting. "By now Mr. Trump clearly understands that Facebook will not hold him to their clearly stated policies," the campaign wrote in a letter to Facebook obtained by Axios.

A Facebook spokesman says the company applies its rules "impartially."

Q. President Trump is repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of the election. How is this shaping the wider discussion?

Myre: The Trump administration is sending very mixed messages, Jankowicz said.

"On the one hand, we see these stark warnings coming from the U.S. intelligence agencies. And on the other hand, President Trump is joking about fake news with [Russian leader] Vladimir Putin," she said.

Trump has declared repeatedly at campaign events that widespread mail-in balloting will lead to "the most corrupt election in the history of our country."

In contrast, FBI Director Christopher Wray, along with many other national security and election officials, are offering assurances that election systems have been hardened and that it will be extremely difficult to tamper with actual votes, in-person or by mail.

Q. What do the platforms say they are looking out for in the coming weeks?

Bond: Facebook and Twitter are sounding the alarm over potential "hack and leak" operations like we saw in 2016. Just last week, the companies took down accounts connected to Kremlin-backed actors they said were involved in the leak of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign four years ago.

The risk of disinformation and manipulation does not end on Election Day. The big question is: What will the platforms do to stop bad information from spreading in an information vacuum, if it takes days or even weeks for final election results?

"This is probably going to take a little bit longer to do the counting because of the increase in absentee ballots," Christopher Krebs, director of the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said recently. "Have a little bit of patience."

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1. Shannon Bond is an NPR tech correspondent. Follow her @shannonpareil.

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

National security officials say Russia is at it again - trying to disrupt the U.S. election and give President Trump a boost through hacking and spreading falsehoods on social media just like in 2016. This time, Russia may not have to work as hard. Clint Watts studies disinformation at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

CLINT WATTS: Russia doesn't have to make fake news. They just repeat, you know, what conspiracies are coming out of the White House and the administration.

SHAPIRO: Americans, including the president of the United States, are raising the possibility of violence, spreading falsehoods about the election online and casting doubt on the whole process. To discuss the dangers, foreign and domestic, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and our tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

Good to have you both here.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So, Greg, let's start with you. Is Russia the only foreign threat or just the biggest right now?

MYRE: It's the biggest foreign threat, and the national security officials and analysts who are studying this are really absolutely clear - Russia is the main foreign threat. It wants to help Donald Trump win reelection. And China and Iran are the other countries that are also mentioned but at a much lower level.

Now, there's a big difference this time. The national security establishment, private researchers and the media are all much more prepared for this kind of disinformation this time. Far more eyeballs are looking for fake social media accounts, planted stories. Just to give you one example, in the 2018 midterms, the National Security Agency sent cyber teams to Europe to shut down the Russian troll factory that had been involved in the 2016 elections. So as far as we know, no foreign campaign has gained any real traction.

SHAPIRO: But is it possible that the 2020 playbook is more advanced and sophisticated and may be escaping the notice of people who are looking for the kinds of things we saw in 2016?

MYRE: Definitely a possibility. Microsoft put out a big report. They said it's the same Russian agency - military intelligence - that's at it again, but they are using different tactics. They were using a lot of bots and automated social media accounts last time. This time, they're going to great lengths to hide their tracks. They're trying to hire Americans who unwittingly will write stories for websites. So yes, the playbook has changed.

SHAPIRO: So, Shannon, tell us about what's happening in the United States. What are you hearing from tech companies and the experts who study this?

BOND: Well, they're very alarmed. I spoke with Yoel Roth. He's in charge of site integrity at Twitter. And he puts it really succinctly.

YOEL ROTH: The people who know the most about how to mislead Americans are other Americans.

BOND: So what security researchers are warning is that, you know, the atmosphere is just so ripe for disinformation right now. We're living with so much uncertainty, and that opens the door for bad actors to undermine confidence in voting, in the election results, because of the changes that are happening during the pandemic. There's also worries that bad actors could use fears about COVID to discourage voting. And there are real concerns about extremist groups that could use social media to incite violence.

And this also creates opportunity for foreign actors to amplify disinformation that Americans are spreading, like those baseless claims that we keep hearing about voting fraud from President Trump. And domestic disinformation is more challenging in some ways for the platforms than foreign meddling. You know, if they were going to take action against somebody like the president, that inevitably becomes sort of a political football. Those calls can be much tougher for Facebook and Twitter to make than taking down Russian bots.

SHAPIRO: And we've seen some of that in the last few months. Tell us about what these companies are doing.

BOND: Yeah. Well, they're doing a lot more than they used to. Both Twitter and Facebook have new rules against misinformation about voting, against casting doubt on results or making premature claims of victory in the aftermath of the election. Especially Twitter has stepped up labeling posts from the president. That's something we just didn't see them do really until the last few months.

They also say they're working together. There are monthly meetings with the industry and government and law enforcement agencies to discuss these threats and their responses. And both companies say they've gamed out more extreme measures that would stop real-world risks like voter suppression and violence, but they don't give us a lot of details on what those might be.

SHAPIRO: Can we say yet how that's going?

BOND: Well, critics say Facebook especially is still just too slow at this. It doesn't label or remove posts in many cases until after they've spread widely. The Biden campaign sent Facebook a letter this week, condemning it for not just taking down Trump's false claims about voting. It called Facebook, quote, "the nation's foremost propagator of disinformation about the voting process." Facebook says it applies its rules impartially. And we should note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. But, you know, what I hear again and again about social media platforms - this isn't just a question of, are they setting the right rules? It's, how are they enforcing those rules?

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, Greg, the president of the United States is repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of the election and saying things about voting that are just flatly false. How is that shaping this discussion?

MYRE: Yes, this has had an impact. The Russian goal for years and years has been to undermine the credibility of the U.S. political system. And now we have a president declaring at campaign events that mail-in ballots aren't credible, that this is the most corrupt election in U.S. history. It's a sharp contrast from what we hear from officials like FBI Director Chris Wray, who say election systems have been hardened, tested and retested, and it will be extremely difficult to tamper with votes.

SHAPIRO: As we enter this final month, do you expect things are going to get worse?

MYRE: Well, we should be aware of any potential surprises. Violence around the election is one big concern. But another is the fact that officials are saying we may not have a winner on the night of November 3, and the country shouldn't panic if that is indeed the case.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

Thank you both.

BOND: Thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAERTS' "WINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.