Although some of us may have missed it with all of the covid-19 news, in early August, U.S. intelligence reported to Congress that Russia, China, and Iran are attempting to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. Russia appears to be launching the largest offensive, with China and Iran making smaller, more limited incursions. Both sides of the aisle have now turned the report into an excuse for partisan grandstanding and factional ammunition. Democrats have used the report as further evidence that Trump is Putin’s desired candidate. Republicans have fired back with the fact that Biden is Iran and China’s desired candidate.
However, in the cases of China and Iran, it is wholly over-simplifying to say that they are running the same manner of interference as Russia. Facebook’s head of security has said that on their platform, the accounts linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were more focused on generating an audience and then dividing said audience rather than supporting Biden in particular. Beijing certainly favors Biden, but their backing seems less concerted than Russia’s support for Trump. This may be due to Biden’s hardline statements against CCP human rights violations in Xinjiang or the fact that he is viewed more favorably by other democratic nations, threatening coalition-building potential. China’s efforts are also largely focused on political issues specifically related to Chinese business interests. For instance, the TikTok ban, the closure of Chinese consulates over accusations of industrial espionage, and resistance against Huawei’s 5G network. And for Iran, although the efforts certainly favor Biden, they appear to be more focused on encouraging mistrust in public institutions and circulating anti-American content than expressly denigrating Trump.
Compare this to Russian efforts, which have been the long-term continuation of the weaponization of social media through deep fakes, bot farms, disinformation, and trolling to support the Trump campaign since the 2016 election. Although Trump’s administration and the Republican party’s record on Russia has been largely harsh, Trump has personally expressed positive rhetoric and admiration for Putin. In addition, Biden was involved in anti-Russian policies based upon the invasion of Ukraine and pro-Putin opposition under the Obama administration.
It would appear that China and Russia are the key players in this election interference, with Iran played a subordinate role. Chinese efforts have been defined as being different from Russian. Although China is currently following Russia’s lead in weaponizing social media platforms, some worry that it may choose to follow a soft-power strategy that has shown promise in Australia and is far harder to combat under a democratic framework. In Australia, Chinese immigrants with connections to the CCP were found donating large sums of money to pro-Beijing political campaigns and attempting to influence Chinese-language media, civic groups, and on university campuses. These efforts are largely conducted through proxies and brushed aside by Beijing with rebuttals of plausible deniability. China has been promoting a positive public image in the U.S. for years through personal exchanges, relationships with American business leaders, retaliatory threats, lobbying, disinformation campaigns, and more.
All of this partisan mud-slinging obscures the real issue, however. To put it simply, Iran, China, and Russia are attempting to realize political outcomes in the U.S. that are advantageous to their respective regimes while concurrently damaging and ultimately shattering ordinary American’s faith in their public institutions. They appear to be succeeding, although the degree to which this is due to foreign interference is debatable. Doubt has been cast on the electoral process and this threatens all of us. Democracy is built upon confidence in the voting system and the integrity of public institutions, and to be frank, we were already on shaky ground due to controversy over the electoral college and big money’s influence on political outcomes.
In addition, we as liberals should not be downplaying China and Iran’s efforts to support the Biden campaign in favor of spotlighting Russia and Trump. These practices, no matter the source, should not be normalized or seen as less dangerous than Russian exertions. It also distracts from real infrastructure problems facing the coming 2020 election, such as the lack of poll workers and the weakening of the U.S. postal service’s capacity.
Despite the threat to our elections, however, U.S. intelligence sources have reiterated that it is unlikely that America’s enemies abroad can currently manipulate voting to the point of altering true results. The U.S. has greatly improved its cyber election defenses since 2016 and much of the public is aware of the threat from foreign interference. The bulk of disinformation is actually coming from domestic sources rather than abroad, with mostly right-wing sources copying and employing tactics made popular by Russia in 2016. This is probably a far greater threat than foreign interference, as social media companies cannot easily clamp down on private citizens within the U.S. who claim that they are simply disseminating their political opinions.