Class 17. Election Meddling 101
Understanding the theory behind foreign election interference and why whataboutism doesn't really work.
Now that we’ve covered the history of Russian active measures and the strategic goals behind them, it’s worth turning to one of the history-altering ways they have been deployed recently in the U.S.: election interference. It’s hard to believe that just ten years ago the idea that a foreign adversary would be brazen enough to try to undermine a U.S. presidential election would not have been top of mind for your average American; it would have been even more unthinkable that any such effort could possibly be effective. And yet, here we are.
It would be wrong, however, to approach this tactic as a “new” phenomenon. On this point, I had hoped to get as a speaker for this class David Shimer, author of Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference; I’ve had the pleasure of both moderating a panel that included David and former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson for the Yale Jackson School of Global Affairs and co-authoring a piece with him before the 2020 election, and his historical insight is illuminating. Unfortunately, David currently serves on the National Security Council and was not able to do a talk, so I’ve included on the syllabus for this class the next best thing: A C-Span video where he discusses the major themes of his book, which I will also explore in further detail below. Understanding how election interference works in theory — and illustrating these tactics through two historical case studies — provides some context for what, exactly, makes us so vulnerable to this particular form of active measures today.
For me, the biggest takeaway from Shimer’s book — which simplified the entire universe of election meddling operations — was understanding that election interference basically takes two main forms:
Changing hearts and minds
Changing actual votes
Seems basic enough, right? You would think so, but since the 2016 election journalists and commentators have routinely conflated these tactics, which confuses the issue in the public mind and also obscures the needed policy solutions to address each of them. I remember writing an op-ed for The Washington Post in June 2017, right after James Comey had testified to Congress following his firing by President Trump: The headline described Russia’s election interference as “hacking,” which to me a) created the misleading impression that the foreign threat was mainly about technical intrusions and b) underemphasized the insidiousness of Russia’s social media disinformation operations (which were not well understood by the public at the time).
To be sure, changing votes and changing hearts and minds are both “hacks” in a sense: One is a technical hack and the other is a cognitive one. In last week’s guest lecture, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe described how, in 2016, the FBI was observing activity on both fronts. On the one hand, there was the hack of the DNC server and signs that Russia was probing election infrastructure in various states (the Senate Intelligence Committee ultimately concluded that Russia had targeted infrastructure in all 50 states) — this was something that, for the most part, the existing protocol and capabilities of the FBI could detect and address. On the other hand, the influence operation on social media — the cognitive “hack” designed to change hearts and minds of the voting public — was not only not anticipated or well understood, but was not something that the FBI’s toolbox could really do much about. Even worse, McCabe noted that the FBI failed to appreciate the link between technical “hacks” and cognitive ones: Namely, that stolen information, like the emails taken from the DNC, could be weaponized to shape public perception.
The second part of Shimer’s theory, which is a little more nuanced, is that election interference can be evaluated along two “planes”:
Individual change: “whether the intention of an operation is to promote a friendly candidate, defeat an unfriendly candidate, or exhibits no preference”
Systemic Change: “whether the intention of an operation is to strengthen, weaken, or not at all impact the internal functions of a democracy”
This analysis is critical to analyzing the threat posed by election interference efforts and comparing them across contexts. For instance, while discussion of Russia’s 2016 election interference has focused on its goals of individual change (helping Trump/hurting Clinton), there hasn’t been enough emphasis on its objective of systemic change, i.e., eroding public faith in the electoral process as a whole. In fact, we tend to forget that at the time, Putin was looking at the same polls we were — and he expected Clinton to win! The fact that Russia had these twin objectives meant that from a systemic change perspective, a Clinton victory could have still been a “win” for Russia, as I wrote with former CIA officers John Sipher andfor Just Security in 2018.
Similarly, “whataboutism” regarding U.S. covert electoral interference typically fails to acknowledge that these actions were undertaken with a (perhaps misguided) systemic goal of trying to promote democracy abroad, not to destabilize its target countries. This doesn’t mean they were wise or aren’t debatable/controversial as a policy matter, but it does undercut the seeming moral equivalency between the two countries’ operations. More on that in a bit.
For now, let’s unpack exactly how Russia’s efforts in 2016 are an evolution of tried and true tactics. To do that, we’ll turn to two historical examples of electoral interference — one by the U.S., the other by the Soviet Union — that each utilized one of the two basic forms of interference.
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