Foreign Influence In The American Election Of 2020 Is Declining

A friend of mine, steeped in 50 years of American politics and a lecturer at Oxford, once said to me that no empire sees itself as it truly is.  His reference was, of course, to the American Empire and its own hero story of exceptionalism.  It also refers to its blind spots such as the efforts to establish and maintain that empire often tangled in bloody politics around the world – like inserting itself in the election politics of other countries.

By Ronald Marks

 

So, when 2016 rolled around, and there were screams to high heaven about Russian interference via well-placed articles and targeted information on the Internet with more than a soupcon of cooperation from one party’s candidate, I am afraid I shrugged my shoulders.  That, however, was not the reaction of most Americans – especially in the camp that lost.  Our hero narrative was violated and our sacrosanct elections were violated!  Retribution must be had.  And, you know the rest of the story.  

Not the First Time

As someone who cut his information teeth at CIA and on Capitol Hill, I am permanently jaded when it comes to any information from any course. As an amateur historian, I can recite you chapter and verse about French, British, and German interference in pre-World War II US elections.  And my CIA experience is steeped in the legends of elections tampered with around the world in pursuit of US foreign policy – Italy, France, Iran, South Vietnam, Chile – the list goes on.  

I am equally not surprised by Russia’s behavior to the US election in 2016.  The Obama Administration involved itself heavily in the support of opponents to Putin’s re-election in 2012.  Putin, former KGB and pure information controlling, totalitarian Russian, is steeped in the lessons of information distortion and proper targeting.  The 2016 elections would be about revenge.  Information was targeted appealing to groups perceived as vulnerable.  Parts of the US electorate stirred and scandal ensued in ways more effective than Putin every imagined.  Like Bin Laden watching the Towers fall, Putin was quietly amazed that a political version of his military’s Gerasimov Doctrine – could work so well in the US.

Loss of Surprise and Who Cares

With an equally contentious and likely close election in 2020, the Russians are trying to repeat some of the success of 2016.  Through social media posts and usual fake news, they are stirring the pot on social issues and fueling both right- and left-wing groups.  

They are no longer alone, as both China and Iran – relative amateurs in the American political field -- are also lining up their best shots at the American electorate.

However, what has now been lost in all of this outside influence is the crucial element of surprise.  Not only are “normal” news sources fact checking, every think tank, and the US Department of Homeland Security as monitoring our elections as well.  Even Facebook and other social media sites are trying to cleanse the system.  And, I dare say, the forced purchase of Tik-Tok is indicative of an aggressive US policy to shut down sites perceived to be used by foreigners to influence Americans.

Now that being said, as another friend of mine said, you can’t legislate against stupid.  So, will people be taken in by the material that slips through.  Yes.  How effective is that information in terms of influencing their actual vote – that’s up for strong debate.  People tend to: grasp for information if they are in doubt or confused or use information that already supports their position or to reinforce that position.  In the 2020 election, a true referendum on Donald Trump, both sides seem to know where they stand -- up to nearly 9 out of ten people say some polls. 

So, the bottom line is 2020 is not going to be 2016 for outside election interference within the US.  But I would also argue, that going forward, US foreign policy is going to have the same problems as the Russians now have pursuing the information game in targeted overseas elections. 

Ronald Marks  is President of ZPN Cyber & National Security Strategies

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