Where did all the foreign interference go?


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: foreign election interference.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Four years ago, Russia set out to tamper with the U.S. presidential elections in a variety of ways. 

They never changed any votes cast. But they did manage to hack into and probe voter databases—in addition to sowing even greater division among Americans.

REICHARD: Heading into this year’s elections, cybersecurity analysts prepared for a similar campaign.

WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg reports now on why it never materialized.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: After 2016, Americans’ vocabularies grew to include words like trolls and bots. 

MARCELLINO: So trolls are fake personi.

William Marcellino is a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation. He says a troll is a real person hiding behind a fake online identity. 

MARCELLINO: Some of them are liberal, progressive, some of them are Conservative. And you spend the whole day going through pretending to be you know, somebody in in Kansas somebody in Portland, and you put out scripted content to try and move the needle on and persuade people informationally.

Four years ago, Russian-sponsored trolls operated thousands of false identities that posted fake news articles and inflammatory comments. 

The Russian government also operated huge networks of bots. Those are fake accounts run by a computer. 

Elisabeth Braw is a national security scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She says Russia’s online election meddling and attacks on state election infrastructure mobilized the U.S. government. 

BRAW: The 2016 elections were essentially America’s wake up call. 

A big part of that wake up call involved beefing up U.S. Cyber Command. That’s the military agency in charge of cyberspace defense. Part of Cyber Command’s strategy involved deploying teams to the Middle East, Asia, and Europe to find—and warn—foreign hackers. 

BRAW: They have been essentially taking the game to the other side. It’s clear to those would-be perpetrators of cyber attacks that they have been found out and they stand to lose if they carry out cyberattacks. 

Cyber Command also found weaknesses in America’s online voter registration systems. That allowed state and local governments and private companies who contract with state election offices to shore up their security systems. 

Elisabeth Braw says Americans have also become more aware of fake trolls and bots. 

BRAW: I think also, many people have been more careful not to click on anything that looks juicy or scandalous. 

Despite these improvements, just weeks before the election, Russian and Iranian hackers got their hands on some American voter information. The Iranian hackers posed as an alt-right group and sent threatening emails to voters in four states. 

At a press conference, National Intelligence Director John Ratcliffe reassured Americans that the threat had been shut down. And he said the elections would still be free and fair. 

RATCLIFFE: These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries know that our election systems are resilient and you can be confident your votes are secure.

Foreign trolls were also active this year. William Marcellino at the RAND Corporation led a study that examined more than 600-thousand Twitter accounts. He then divided them into different political camps. 

The pro-Biden camp included 160,000 accounts, with 4 percent operated by trolls. Marcellino put about 87,000 accounts in the pro-Trump category and found trolls behind 8 percent of those. 

Marcellino also detected a new type of fake account called a super connector. 

MARCELLINO: Super connectors are accounts that had very, very dense connections. Thousands of friends and followers linked to each other. 

Those dense connections allow superconnected trolls to spread false information fast. 

MARCELLINO: They are a ready-made distribution network.

In September, Twitter and Facebook announced they had removed several hundred fake, foreign accounts.  

These handful of foreign actions had federal officials on high alert heading into Election Day. In October, Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf spoke with CBS news. 

WOLF: This is the prime opportunity for any adversary whether it’s Russia, whether it’s Iran or a cyber actor.

But last Tuesday delivered a big surprise. At a press conference, Acting Director Wolf said intelligence officials detected no significant foreign interference in the election. 

WOLF: We have no indications that a foreign actor has succeeded in compromising or affecting the actual votes cast in this election.

In the days after the election, as counts dragged on, levels of meddling remained insignificant. 

Some of the smaller efforts included a robocall scam encouraging voters to stay home on election day. Twitter also suspended several fake accounts that prematurely declared former Vice President Joe Biden had won the election. 

So why didn’t we see a bigger effort to disrupt this year’s election?

Elisabeth Braw at the American Enterprise Institute says foreign foes know America is now much better prepared for a cyberattack… and to avenge one.

BRAW: We should remember that, whichever country wants to do that also has to bear in mind that America might retaliate or is likely to retaliate. 

But there’s another reason. 

Konstantin Sonin is an economist and political scientist at the University of Chicago. He’s also from Russia. Sonin says four years ago, Russia’s goal was simply to undermine faith in democracy. 

SONIN: President Putin doesn’t believe that the United States is a democracy. He doesn’t believe that people’s vote matter. And also, he doesn’t think that people vote should matter. 

Sonin says after 2016, Russia realized it doesn’t need to keep using widespread misinformation campaigns and cyber attacks to get Americans to doubt their elections. We doubted each other then and now.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.


(AP Photo/Julio Cortez) Workers prepare main-in ballots for counting, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, at the convention center in Lancaster, Pa., following Tuesday’s election. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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