WASHINGTON (AP) — Russia didn’t have to lift a finger.
In the weeks before the U.S. presidential election, federal authorities warned that Russia or other foreign countries might spread false information about the results to discredit the legitimacy of the outcome.
Turns out, the loudest megaphone for that message belonged not to Russia but to U.S. President Donald Trump, who has trumpeted a blizzard of thoroughly debunked claims to proclaim that he, not President-elect Joe Biden, was the rightful winner.
The resulting chaos is consistent with longstanding Russian interests to sow discord in the United States and to chip away at the country’s democratic foundations and standing on the world stage. If the 2016 election raised concerns about foreign interference in U.S. politics, the 2020 contest shows how Americans themselves, and their leaders, can be a powerful source of disinformation without other governments even needing to do the work.
“For quite a while at this point, the Kremlin has been able to essentially just use and amplify the content, the false and misleading and sensational politically divisive content generated by political officials and American themselves” rather than create their own narratives and content, said Cindy Otis, vice president for analysis at the Alethea Group, which tracks disinformation.
U.S. officials had been on high alert for foreign interference heading into Nov. 3, especially after a presidential election four years earlier in which Russian intelligence officers hacked Democratic emails and Russian troll farms used social media to sway public opinion.
Public service announcements from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity arm warned of the ways Russia or other countries could interfere again, including by creating or altering websites after the election to spread false information about the results “in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions.”
Yet many of the false claims about voting, elections and the candidates in the months and weeks ahead of the election — and in the days since — originated not from foreign actors eager to destabilize the U.S. but from domestic groups and Trump himself.
“Almost all of this is domestic,” said Alex Stamos, the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a member of the Election Integrity Partnership, a group of leading disinformation experts who studied online misinformation relating to the 2020 election.
Stamos said that while there were some small indications of foreign interference on social media, it amounted to “nothing that has been all that interesting” compared with the flood of claims shared by Americans themselves.
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Though Russian hackers had targeted state and local networks in the months before the election, Election Day came and went without the feared attacks on voting infrastructure and federal officials. Other experts have said there is no evidence voting systems were compromised or any votes were lost or changed.
That’s not to say Russia was entirely silent during the election, or in the immediate aftermath. English-language websites the U.S. government has linked to Russia have amplified stories suggesting voting problems or fraud.
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