With Election Day 2018 behind us, many are breathing a sigh of relief. Those following closely the prospect of widespread election interference are indicating that, despite fears of everything from the changing of votes to the spread of disinformation, the 2018 midterms saw relatively little by way of such interference, or at least less than occurred in 2016. It’s true that there have been no credible reports of actual vote-changing of the type that could call into question the Election Day results, and that’s reassuring. But, all told, it’s unfortunately misguided to suggest that this campaign season and ultimately this election were free from election interference. That’s for at least three reasons.
First, consider the changes in Russian tactics for reaching American audiences. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have stepped up their efforts to address election interference and in so doing disrupted, at least to some extent, Moscow’s attempts to repeat its 2016 tactics like the building of false personas with large followings. But make no mistake: The Kremlin has adapted. With a broader array of sources for disinformation—from newly created websites to greater numbers of social media accounts, each with smaller followings—overall Russia appears to have engaged in more disruptions to democratic dialogue in 2018 than in 2016, not fewer. This is an unfortunate and troubling state of affairs that leading experts Jonathon Morgan and Ryan Fox have documented through extensive research and analysis.
Second, consider the maturation in Russia’s approach compared to what it did in 2016. Coverage of 2018 election interference has tended to focus on whether particular candidates were favored by online influence operations, whether particular votes were changed, or whether disinformation about whether, when, and how to vote on Election Day was circulating. But, even if there was less of that than some expected, the democratic dialogue leading up to Election Day 2018 was still unquestionably infected by Russian influence. Think of the major themes that dominated political discourse during this period, including #ReleaseTheMemo, the Kavanaugh hearings, and immigration. Those topics generated significant political fights in the long build-up to the election. As has been well-documented for each of these topics, the online discussions about all of them have been polarized, aggravated, and in some instances even driven by Kremlin-backed online influence campaigns. In other words, just zoom out, and the 2018 election interference comes into clearer focus. And there’s also the potential interference we seem narrowly to have avoided this election cycle, as evidenced by Russia’s reported laying of the groundwork for spreading disinformation about widespread voter fraud in battleground states where Democrats had the possibility of achieving greater gains than ultimately materialized.
Third, consider Russia’s domestic counterparts in the dark arts of disinformation. America’s experience in 2016 trained us to focus on foreign election interference, in particular. But it’s not only foreigners who can spread disinformation online in a deliberate effort to distort our democracy. Americans, too, can mislead and distort their fellow citizens—and they are increasingly doing so, taking a page from hostile foreign actors. In so doing, they’re pitting Americans against each other on cooked-up issues like the so-called migrant caravan and the purported influence of billionaire George Soros, as powerfully documented this week in the Washington Post. What’s more, online there’s no clear separation between foreign and domestic influence campaigns; instead, in our digital age these voices cross national boundaries and echo, amplify, and feed off each other.
So, breathe a brief sigh of relief that Tuesday’s election results appear, in a direct sense, ones we can and should honor. As I’ve emphasized elsewhere, be sure to maintain a healthy skepticism of any claims to the contrary unless grounded in clear and concrete evidence, especially if such claims appear politically driven. But don’t think that we’ve cleansed our political system and discourse of the taint of election interference. It’s still happening, and it may well be escalating. If anything, we’re missing it because it’s become insidiously ingrained in our national debates on an ongoing basis, rather than just materializing to favor particular candidates in the immediate prelude to Election Day. And that status quo, in which we as Americans don’t even notice that our biggest political arguments are being fueled by disinformation peddled at home and abroad, should be decidedly disconcerting and should in turn demand an improved response from the government, the tech sector, and civil society in the months to come—especially with Election Day 2020 suddenly looming large.