On October 6, 2020 Director of the FBI Christopher Wray, Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) Christopher Krebs, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC), and the Director of the National Security Agency Gen. Paul Nakasone released a public service announcement (PSA) about the 2020 election, which is already underway in most of the US.
The right to vote in a free and fair election is one of the foundations of American democracy. The leaders of the #FBI, @CISAgov, @NCSCgov, and @NSAgov want you to know how their organizations work together to protect your voice—no matter how you cast your vote. #Protect2020 pic.twitter.com/TaJBhWYwqL
— FBI (@FBI) October 6, 2020
There is a lot of concern, stress, and strain in regard to the 2020 election. And this PSA was intended to address some of it.
Three weeks prior to releasing the PSA with his colleagues, Director Wray testified before the House Homeland Security Committee that:
- There are “very active efforts” by Russia to interfere in the 2020 election, primarily by working to damage former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
- Russians have been using social media, as well as “proxies, state media, online journals” and other vehicles to hurt Biden and what it views as anti-Russian factions in U.S. politics.
- Wray’s assessment affirms the findings of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which last month described Russia’s efforts to damage Biden and specifically identified Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian Ukrainian lawmaker who has met with President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, as an agent of Russia’s influence operations.
- Under questioning from Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), Wray indicated that white supremacist violence is the largest portion of what he described as the most significant domestic terrorism threat in the country: “racially motivated violent extremism.”
- In testimony to the Homeland Security Committee, Wray also diverged from Trump’s claim that “antifa” is a terrorist organization. Rather, Wray said antifa is “more of an ideology or a movement than an organization” and though there has been violence by some who self-identify as antifa, it has not appeared to be part of a central organization.
- “Antifa is a real thing,” said Wray. “But it’s not an organization or a structure.”
- Though racially motivated violence is a broader term that encompasses multiple ideologies, he said “people ascribing to some white supremacy type of ideology is certainly the largest chunk of that.” Much more at the link.
Several days after Director Wray and his colleagues released their 2020 election PSA, the Department of Homeland Security finally released their October 2020 domestic threat assessment, that they tried to bury until a whistleblower made that impossible. The assessment makes it very clear that the predominant terrorism threat to Americans in the U.S. are white supremacists and other right-wing domestic extremists. One of Russia’s major influence operations to disrupt the 2020 elections is to incite terroristic violence by these groups against visible racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. From page 10 of the DHS thread assessment (emphasis mine):
Russia is the likely primary covert influence actor and purveyor of disinformation and misinformation within the Homeland. We assess that Moscow’s primary objective is to increase its global standing and influence by weakening America—domestically and abroad—through efforts to sow discord, distract, shape public sentiment, and undermine trust in Western democratic institutions and processes.
- Russian influence actors will continue using overt and covert methods to aggravate social and racial tensions, undermine trust in U.S. authorities, stoke political resentment, and criticize politicians who Moscow views as anti-Russia. Although some of this activity might be framed in the context of the U.S. election—seemingly in support of or opposition to political candidates— we assess that Moscow’s overarching objective is to weaken the United States through discord, division, and distraction in hopes that America becomes less able to challenge Russia’s strategic objectives.
- Russian influence actors will engage in media manipulation—across social media platforms, proxy websites, and traditional media, to include state-controlled outlets—to exacerbate U.S. social, political, racial, and cultural fault lines.
- Russian actors will attempt to undermine national unity and sow seeds of discord that exploit perceived grievances within minority communities, especially among African Americans. Russian influence actors often mimic target audiences and amplify both sides of divisive issues to maximize discord, tailoring messaging to specific communities to “push and pull” them in different ways.
- The Russian government promulgates misinformation, threats, and narratives intended to incite panic or animosity among social and political groups. For example, Russian actors amplified narratives such as U.S. law enforcement ignoring ICE detention requests and releasing an illegal immigrant accused of rape; assaults on supporters and opponents of the President; and portrayals of U.S. law enforcement as racially biased. Russian influence actors also have exploited national tragedies, such as the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, and protest movements—sometimes magnifying both a protest and a counter-protest—such as the 2017 protest activity in Charlottesville.
Proxy Websites: Foreign news outlets, think tanks, and investigative journalist websites on behalf of foreign governments or foreign government-linked businessmen and oligarchs in a non-overt or non-attributed way (echoing foreign government narratives, talking points, and disinformation). State media often cite these proxy websites and portray them as credible and independent sources of information.
We note that in the U.S.. persons linking, citing, quoting, or voicing the same themes, narratives, or opinions raised by these influence activities likely are engaging in First Amendment-protected activity, unless they are acting at the direction, or under the control of, a foreign threat actor. Furthermore, variants of the topics covered in this report, even those that include divisive terms, should not be assumed to reflect foreign influence or malign activity, absent information specifically attributing the content to malign foreign actors.
I highly recommend you click through when you get a chance and take the fifteen or twenty minutes it will take to read the whole assessment for yourself.
DHS’s assessment is supported by an analysis released today by the German Marshall Fund:
“Over the last few months, the Digital New Deal project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States set out to look at deceptive sites that masquerade as journalism. We had identified these in our Roadmap for Securing Digital Democracy as “trojan horses”: sites that take on the appearance of news sites and launder disinformation while eschewing the practices of independent journalism (e.g., sourcing, mastheads, verification, corrections). These sites degrade democratic debate by leveraging platform design to boost conspiracies.
We found that the level of engagement with articles from outlets that repeatedly publish verifiably false content has increased 102 percent since the run-up to the 2016 election.
In addition, engagement with another set of sites that fail to gather and present information responsibly—especially Fox, Daily Wire, and Breitbart—has grown 293 percent. Interactions with articles from both kinds of deceptive sites have increased by 242 percent between the third quarter of 2016 and the third quarter of 2020.”
As we enter the last two and a half weeks of the 2020 election, it is important to recognize just what is going on with the deluge of information that American’s are receiving in the traditional and digital news media, social media, and digital media; much of it purposefully inaccurate and intended to inflame and exacerbate Americans’ existing political, social, economic, religious, and regional divisions.
The FBI viewpoint expressed by Director Wray in his Congressional testimony in September, the recent DHS threat assessment, and the German Marshall Fund’s analysis just released this week all concur. Misinformation, disinformation, and agitprop are being pushed primarily by Russia at Americans through their information sources in order to get Americans to destroy ourselves.
As I’ve written here before, Vladimir Putin knows that he doesn’t have the military and economic power to achieve his strategic objective of leveling American in order to enhance Russia’s stature and power. As a result, he has developed ways and means, leveraging information, intelligence, and diplomatic power to get Americans to do his work for him. This has been going on at least since 2014 and it will continue after the 2020 election is over.
Thinking security is deciding that regardless of our differences as Americans – political, social, religious, economic, or regional – we control our own destiny. Not Putin, not Russia, and not anyone else. At the end of the day, Putin’s strategy will only work if we let it.
If we recognize that despite our differences we’re Americans even when we don’t agree with each other, especially when we don’t agree with each other, then these influence campaigns, regardless of where they originate, will fail.
There was a reason the Founders and the Framers used the motto e pluribus unum (from many one). It recognized that even at the founding of the United States 244 years ago, that Americans were a diverse lot, from many different places, with many different backgrounds, and with many differing ideas about how things should be done at the local, state, and federal levels of government.
But Americans’ greatest attribute has been the ability to come together as Americans regardless of those differing backgrounds and ideas. Thinking security means recognizing that we’re all in this experiment in self-government together and that no one has all the right ideas for how to actually self govern.