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Fact check US: What is the impact of Russian interference in the US presidential election?

In June 2017, demonstrators (here in New York) demanded that light be shed on possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP

This article looks at the Russian’s contribution to the spread of fake news about the US elections.

To understand concerns about the upcoming 2020 US elections, it is crucial to look back at the 2016 electoral cycle. As early as January 2017, a joint report by the CIA, FBI and NSA confirmed that there had been Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Russia’s objective, according to this document, was to undermine the confidence of Americans in their electoral system and to denigrate Hillary Clinton. In the run-up to the 2020 election, William Evanina, director of the National Counter-intelligence and Security Center, accused China, Iran and Russia of posing a threat to the US election next November. He stated that China does not want Trump to be re-elected because it considers him “unpredictable”, Russia is wants to see him elected. One way to try to influence the US electoral process is to interfere with the information circulating about the campaign, and its an art at which the Russians have become experts.

Between January 2015 and August 2017, Facebook linked 80,000 publications to the Russian company Internet Research Agency through more than 470 different accounts. At the same time, a total of 50,258 Twitter accounts were linked to Russian bots – fake accounts programmed to share false information – during the 2016 election period. The bots are responsible for more than 3.8 million tweets, about 19% of the total tweets related to the 2016 US presidential election. Approximately 80% of these bots behaved in a way that supported Donald Trump, mostly using the hashtags #donaldtrump, #trump2016, #neverhillary and #trumppence16.

Why might Russia have worked to support Donald Trump in 2016? One of the hypotheses is Vladimir Putin’s contempt for Hillary Clinton, which dates back to December 2011, when riots took place in Moscow following the announcement of Putin’s candidacy for the Russian presidency in March 2012. The Kremlin accused the then Secretary of State of encouraging the protests and interfering in the Russian electoral process.

Russia’s interests in 2020

For the 2020 election, Russia appears to be once again favouring the election of Trump, this time over Joe Biden and the Democratic party, which it perceives as being unfriendly to Russian interests. It should be remembered that as vice president, Biden played a role in the policy of sanctions against Russia in 2014 following the annexation of the Crimea.

In light of this information, what is awaiting the United States in this new electoral cycle? At the end of August 2020, Facebook has already dismantled three botnets propagating false information. Two were Russian and one Pakistani. Since 2017, Facebook has dismantled a dozen of these networks linked to the Internet Research Agency, which recently created a new site, Peace Data, which claims to be a global press organization. On their site one finds false information about both Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the main objective being to further divide Americans.

In addition to closing five accounts related to Russia, Twitter announced that Peace Data would be banned from its platform. On September 10, Microsoft alerted Joe Biden’s campaign that Russian hackers tried to access the servers of the American communication agency SKDKnickerbocker, hired by many Democratic candidates. It was through a similar ploy that Hillary Clinton’s e-mails were made public during the 2016 campaign. But while the Democrats urge the White House to acknowledge Russian interference and impose sanctions, Trump turns away from the issue and accuses China of encouraging demonstrations and racial divisions.

While we do not yet have sufficient data and hindsight to fully analyse this presidential campaign, the threat posed by the bots must be seriously considered. According to Harvard sociologist Kathleen M. Carley, a fake news story travels six times faster on social media than a verified story. Fake news are being shared quickly and continuously through a network of fake accounts programmed for this purpose. Quantity is more important than the quality of the message conveyed, because one of the objectives is to drown the real news in a constant stream of fake news.

If individuals do not subscribe to a false story, the bots stop sharing it. However, if community members share and strongly adhere to a fake news story, the bots will make sure to relay it as often as possible in a short period of time to multiply its reach across social media’s networks. At the same time, if a fake account is deactivated, another one will be created to replace it. It is therefore an endemic movement that is regenerated even as the platforms try to eradicate them.

In the current political context, where President Trump himself frequently shares fake news, the work of the bots is made easier. As Joshua Yaffa explains, the Russian bots did not need to create the polemic surrounding the mail-in vote or the Black Lives Matter protests: they only had to massively share the news exacerbating tensions created by the Americans themselves.

In April 2018, Reddit banned nearly 1,000 Russian bots. Meanwhile, the Hamilton 68 Project was set up to identify and list bots and fake accounts, and to teach citizens how to spot these fake accounts. The topics usually covered by Russian bots are listed on their website so that the general public can better understand how they work.

The multiple relays of fake news

Bots are however not limited to social media discussions. YouTube videos can also be used as propagation vectors, as well as humorous images commonly called memes.

In 2018, Russia went even further in the presidential election in Madagascar. Russian agents created a new newspaper there and hired students to write articles in favour of the outgoing president. They bought advertising inserts, paid people to go to demonstrations and paid journalists to cover the demonstrations.

Currently, there is no evidence that these more advanced methods are being used in the United States. However, there is evidence that the Russians have become masters in the art of creating bots dedicated to spreading false information.

In this way, Russian interference continues to fuel tensions among Americans, adding uncertainty and undermining public confidence in the democratic electoral process.

Fact check US is supported by Craig Newmark Philanthropies, which promotes trustworthy journalism.

This article was originally published in French

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