WASHINGTON Russia has not had to lift a finger.
In the weeks leading up to the US presidential election, federal authorities warned that Russia or other foreign countries could disseminate false information about the results in order to discredit the legitimacy of the result.
As it turns out, the loudest megaphone for this message was not Russia, but President Donald Trump, who launched a storm of completely denied claims to proclaim that he, and not President-elect Joe Biden, was the legitimate winner.
The resulting chaos is consistent with long-standing Russian interests in sowing discord in the United States and undermining the country’s democratic foundations and its standing on the world stage. While the 2016 election raised concerns about foreign interference in American politics, the 2020 competition shows how Americans themselves, and their leaders, can be a powerful source of disinformation without other governments being even need to do the job.
For a while at this point the Kremlin has been able to essentially use and amplify content, bogus and misleading and sensational, politically divisive content generated by politicians and Americans themselves “rather than create their own narratives and content, said former CIA officer Cindy Otis, vice president of analysis at the Alethea Group, which tracks disinformation.
U.S. officials were on high alert for foreign interference in the run-up to November 3, especially after a presidential election four years earlier in which Russian intelligence agents hacked Democratic emails and Russian trolls have used social media to influence public opinion.
Public service announcements from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity service warned of ways Russia or other countries could interfere again, including by creating or modifying websites after the attacks. elections to disseminate false information about the results in an attempt to discredit the electoral process. and undermine confidence in America’s democratic institutions.
Yet many of the false statements about the vote, the election, and the candidates in the months and weeks leading up to the election and in the days after it came not from foreign actors keen to destabilize the United States, but from groups. national governments and Trump himself.
Almost all of this is national, said Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a member of the Election Integrity Partnership, a leading group of disinformation experts who have studied online disinformation regarding the 2020 election. .
Stamos said that while there were a few small indications of foreign interference on social media, it didn’t represent anything that was so interesting compared to the flood of claims shared by Americans themselves.
Although Russian hackers targeted state and local networks in the weeks leading up to the election, polling day came and went without the dreaded attacks on voting infrastructure, and federal officials and other experts. said there was no evidence that voting systems had been compromised or that votes had been lost. or changed.
This does not mean that Russia was completely silent during the election, or immediately after. For example, English-language websites that the US government linked to Russia have amplified stories suggesting problems with voting or fraud.
Intelligence officials warned in August that Russia was engaged in a concerted effort to disparage Biden and chose a Ukrainian parliamentarian who had met with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani played a central role in Trump’s election attacks, defending a court case in Pennsylvania on Tuesday and appearing at a press conference on Thursday that was filled with denied allegations, including a fictional story that a server hosting evidence of voting irregularities was in Germany.
Trump retweeted an article criticizing the media for not covering the press conference more aggressively. More broadly, he has helped spread inaccurate information through a disinformation machine that draws on social media, conservative radio and television, and the amplifying power of his millions of followers.
Zignal Labs, a San Francisco-based media intelligence firm, identified and tracked millions of social media posts about mail voting in the months leading up to the election and found huge spikes immediately after several tweets from Trump.
One example: On July 30, Trump tweeted misinformation about mail-in ballots three times, including stating without evidence that mail-in ballots would be an easy way for foreign opponents to intervene, calling the incorrect and fraudulent process and repeating a false distinction that mail ballots are safer than mail ballots when both are treated the same.
Together, these three tweets have been reposted by other users over 100,000 times and have been liked over 430,000 times, which led to the spread of mail-order disinformation that day and helped Trump dominate the discussion. online all week, according to Zignals analysis.
Many of the false statements seen on election day came from American voters themselves, whose messages about baseless allegations of voter fraud were then reposted to millions more by Trump allies. This amplification allows isolated or misleading claims to spread more widely.
You don’t talk so much about base activity anymore, Stamos said. You talk about a top-down activity facilitated by the ability of these people to create these audiences.
Researchers at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University analyzed social media posts and reporting on voter fraud and determined that Fox News and Donald Trumps’ campaign was much more influential in spreading false beliefs that Russian trolls or Facebook clickbait artists.
One of the researchers, Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler, said that when his team examined the sudden increase in online discussions about voter fraud, they almost always followed a comment from Trump or his key allies.
Justin Levitt, an electoral law expert at Loyola Law School, said that unlike four years ago, we no longer need a foreign military unit to attack us. We have a CEO who does exactly that and works to spread misinformation.
It’s even more dangerous this time, he added, “than it was in 2016.
Klepper reported from Providence, Rhode Island. Associated Press editor Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.
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