Want an indication of what Russia may do in the US on November 4? Look no further than Bolivia's presidential election.
Yesterday (October 18), Bolivia held a presidential election. It was a unique situation, but there are a lot of similarities with the US: stark ideological divisions, previous contested results, accusations of fraud, distrust in organizations meant to ensure election integrity, and accusations of foreign influence.
Today, projections are all pointing to the same winner, Luis Arce, of Morales's MAS party. Some news outlets are outright declaring him the winner, others are simply reporting projections in his favor. But, from what I can see, there appears to be consensus that he is likely to win.
That was not the case last night. After polls closed, there were significant delays in the reporting of election results. This was the result of a combination of causes, mainly precautions taken to ensure the integrity of the information, combined with a variety of delays caused by Covid–19 protections.
These delays, combined with claims of election meddling as recently as last year, led some to fear something untoward was happening. However, there was no violence, and these fears were presented as afterthoughts in last night's reporting from mainstream outlets like El País.
However, the featured article on Actualidad RT (Russia's primary Spanish-language state media outlet) last night highlighted those concerns front and center.
A little context about Actualidad RT: unlike its English counterpart, rt.com, Actualidad RT does not ask readers to "question more." At least not directly. Instead, they seek to hold a more mainstream position within the Latin American news landscape. To be sure, Actualidad RT advances Russian perspectives, but it does not heavily editorialize like RT in English. Rather, Actualidad RT presents factual reporting, curating which stories to write, which facts to include, and which subjects to quote in order to use legitimate reporting to advance Russian interests.
This is similar to what NBC reported recently about RT's Ruptly video service. They present real videos of real events filmed by people actually on the ground (i.e., no deepfakes), but when they choose which content to buy and/or publish, it is framed by an agenda far different than unbiased reporting of facts in the public interest.
Back to Bolivia: last night's brief fearmongering from Russia's usually even-keeled Actualidad RT provides a glimpse into what we may see from Russia on Election Night and beyond in the US, should there be any reason, legitimate or otherwise, to doubt the integrity of the election results.
We have seen Russia do similar things in the US in the past: amplifying real stories that exacerbate existing tensions, in order to direct US attention inward (and away from Russia's activity elsewhere in the world) and to portray to the world (including to Russian citizens) a contrast between the polarized/lawless/violent United States and the stable rule of law in Russia.
As we approach the US General Election, all of the necessary seeds have been planted by domestic actors, including the president and his campaign: preemptive claims of a rigged election, allegations of voter suppression, fears about Trump's unwillingness to peacefully transfer power should he lose, fears about extremist violence (or threats thereof) at polling places, worries about vote by mail (both access issues and potential fraud). Though all signs so far point to a secure election and high voter turnout, these fears exist, and all a bad actor would need to do is amplify these claims and any legitimate reporting around these concerns in order to diminish public confidence in the electoral process and its results.
One of the most successful disinformation techniques out there is agenda setting: the curation of real news that supports one's ideology or agenda. By selecting the "right" stories, details, and interview subjects, a bad actor (or, for that matter, a benign actor) can advance their agenda without creating and rebutting "fake news." Foreign state actors have plausible deniability — the source is domestic. Platforms have difficulty issuing takedowns — the accounts are "authentic", and the content is factual (even if misleading). And Americans, rightly, shy away from the idea of censoring agenda-drive voices attempting to persuade. (See Chapter 1 of my book, Data versus Democracy, for a detailed discussion of agenda setting and the manipulation of public attention.)
All that is to say that a bad actor, including a state actor, doesn't need to create fake news to diminish public trust in the legitimacy of the election. There are enough existing conspiracy theories and legitimate concerns that, if there is any delay in reporting election results, it would be easy for any malign actor (foreign or domestic) to selectively report factual content, including quotes from fearmongering public figures, that exacerbate those concerns. And with Covid–19, increased voting by mail, and a number of close races, there almost certainly will be delays.
Given Russia's history in the U.S., their recent activity in Bolivia, and the current fearscape in the US, I wouldn't be surprised to see this tactic appear on Russian state media and from their other official and unofficial mouthpieces, on Election Night and beyond.
So what can we do?
The main thing in the short term is to stick to reading — and especially sharing — legitimate stories that present verified facts, present them completely, and do not present unsubstantiated quotes/concerns from fearmongerers and non-experts as "reporting." That includes opinion polls about whether Americans think the election is secure. The news media is often the primary target of political disinformation — both foreign and domestic. We need to make sure not to amplify them when they get played.
In the long term, we need a bigger public conversation about what we tolerate from platforms and adversarial state actors on domestic platforms. Currently, platforms are content to label adversarial state media as such, and then wash their hands of the rest. If they are not participating in "coordinated inauthentic behavior" or presenting counterfactual claims about Covid–19 that risk public health, they are content to collect the advertising dollars that that state-sponsored content provides them. But there's a lot more to influence operations than fake news, coordination, or "inauthentic" accounts. In fact, I would suggest those are both the easiest for the platforms to address and the least effective tactics from sophisticated actors.
Of course, what will actually happen on Nov 3 and beyond remains to be seen. But I fear that, when it comes to media — both social media and news media — we haven't really learned the lessons of 2016.
Regardless, the most important thing each of us can do is participate in the electoral process fully and in good faith. Take a couple hours to sit down with your mail-in ballot (or an online sample ballot from your election officials) and research each race and ballot initiative one-by-one. Then return/cast that ballot, and watch the official channels patiently for results. Don't chase the conspiracy theories or early indicators. Wait for the verified facts, and encourage those around you to do the same. It may not solve the problem, but if enough of us act responsibly and in good faith, we can diminish the impact of any adversarial influence attempts, whether foreign or domestic.