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Russia’s plan for 2020? Exacerbate tensions, sow mistrust, sit back and enjoy the show

Americans are doing a pretty good job of screwing up their elections all on their own, so the best way to influence an election is to act well before election day.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Pat Leahy
Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Pat Leahy showing a fake social media post for a non-existent "Miners for Trump" rally in a hearing on how Russia allegedly used their services to try to sway the 2016 elections, on October 31, 2017.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Imagine you’re a senior Russian official who helps decide whether and how to try to influence foreign elections. You’ve just been treated to a grand spectacle: The release of the redacted Mueller report, and you’re closely following all the subsequent finger-pointing.

You know that Mueller detailed a “sweeping and systematic” Russian effort to get Donald Trump elected president. So what? Most of what he reported was already known. More to the point, you know that the next election cycle already is well under way. Eighteen Democrats have announced their candidacy, and Joe Biden is likely to join them this week. The Iowa caucuses are a little more than nine months off. What’s your game plan?

Here is a guess. You’ll focus on exacerbating tensions among the Democrats. That’s where the action is, at least for now. But you might decide you don’t need to do much at all because your little gift to the Americans in 2016 will keep on giving in 2020.

Yes, you worked to get Donald Trump elected, and you’d probably like to see him reelected next year. But your real aim is to nudge the U.S. political system deeper into chaos, to increase mistrust and turn Americans against each other. The more they regard other Americans as the enemy, the weaker their country is. Plus, as long as Trump is president, U.S. politics is going to mostly be about him. And he’s not going to make you pay for what you did in 2016 – or what you do in 2020.

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It took a while, but the United States is starting to respond to the threats to its electoral system exposed by Russian interference in 2016. More accurately, the U.S. doesn’t even have an electoral system; there are different systems in each state, which limits the damage any individual cyberattack could do, but it also complicates the effort to secure the vote. Most states (though not yet Minnesota) have tapped into a $380 million fund Congress approved last year to improve election security.

This time, everyone is forewarned. In any case, the Americans are doing a pretty good job of screwing up their elections all on their own through voter suppression, gerrymandering and unregulated truckloads of money. The best way to influence an election is to act well before election day.

So the main theater of action still is likely to be social media. Facebook, Twitter and their ilk have gotten smarter about searching for trolls. Americans may be more skeptical about what they read on social media this time around, and it’s possible they will be less likely to fall for fake stories. But it’s probably still worth the effort. Phony users and fake news – the actual fake news – can be created very quickly. False stories can jump from platform to platform, easily defying efforts to take them down.

To illustrate that point, Benjamin T. Decker, a research fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, unraveled how a couple of false reports about California Sen. Kamala Harris moved across the Internet, with an unintentional assist from CNN’s Chris Cuomo.

Decker and others point out that several Democrats already have been targeted. Politico commissioned an analysis by the tech firm, and reported in February that Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke in particular had been singled out. That may well change as other candidates gain in popularity. Some of activity appears to be a simple reflection of the polarized political atmosphere. But there also is evidence of coordinated action that shares characteristics with the Russian effort in 2016.

“As it relates to information warfare in the 2020 cycle, we’re not on the verge of it – we’re already in the third inning,” Politico quoted a Guardians cofounder, Brett Horvath, as saying.

This is icing on the cake for Russia since the coming election appears virtually certain to be nasty and  divisive in the extreme. Trump’s victory in 2016 and all that has followed guarantees it. While it probably never will be clear, credible analyses argue that Russian interference was enough to tip the election to Trump. What’s more certain is that Russia’s social media effort exacerbated the coarse nature of the campaign.

Impeachment in the House of Representatives may not happen, but it’s still not off the table. Democrats will continue to investigate the president on multiple fronts well into next year. Trump will continue to rage, tell lies and pander to his base.

For Russia, if it appears the 2020 election is going to turn into a rout — one way or the other — there probably is no sense in expending a lot of effort on it. If it’s close, like last time, a little social media campaign might go a long way. Or Russia can at least hope to inflict more damage on American democracy. In either case, though, the Russians can afford to take some time to enjoy the show. All that outrage is sweet music.