Among the seemingly infinite controversies since President Trump took office in 2016, perhaps none have persisted as singularly as the concern of Russian interference in our elections. In his new book, Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference, reporter David Shimer assesses the history of election meddling between the two nations, from post–World War II to Vladimir Putin’s current shadow over U.S. elections.
While Russia didn’t manipulate actual ballots and voting systems in 2016, Shimer says pandemic conditions could make such interference possible this year. And there’s the continued threat of social media manipulation by the Moscow-backed Internet Research Agency, which has a history of playing on American racial tensions to divide voters.
GEN spoke with Shimer about Russia’s carefully orchestrated campaign of chaos and how current political flashpoints — especially the Black Lives Matter protests and the Covid-19 pandemic — may play a role in covert interference efforts come November.
GEN: What were the primary facets of Russia’s electoral interference campaign in 2016?
David Shimer: Russia did three things to manipulate America’s presidential election. First, Russian military intelligence covertly scanned, probed, and penetrated our electoral systems — inside our voter databases, inside our voting systems. All available evidence indicates they didn’t actually manipulate our systems. However, they were inside them, and that’s something the U.S. intelligence community was aware of at the time.
The second prong was the hack and release of the private correspondence, the emails, of John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee.
The third component was what is called an information warfare campaign across social media, where a Russian factory basically, with a monthly budget in the millions, had a bunch of Russian operatives sitting in a troll farm in Russia. The reach of those accounts ended up being over 100 million Americans.
While the Obama administration was intensely focused on the first facet going into the 2016 election, the Internet Research Agency’s information warfare campaign was largely unknown. What was the IRA’s objective, and why was its use of social media distinct?
What social media presented the IRA an opportunity to do was, you don’t have to work through actual people. You can just make fake accounts, and then suddenly you are an American. You had Russians in a factory in St. Petersburg in an organization that was run by a close ally of Vladimir Putin presenting themselves as Americans on a wide scale across Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, LinkedIn, Reddit—all over the social media landscape.
The first objective the IRA pursued was to sow discord in America. What does that mean? We are going to spread content that scares people — things about vaccines, about pandemics, about the sanctity of our voting systems. We’re going to target specific racial and religious groups. One of the IRA’s main focuses was on targeting Black Americans in order to suppress the Black vote, because Black voters typically tend to align with Democrats. And the other objective of the IRA, the secondary objective, was to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. The IRA also spread divisive racist content toward different audiences to try to turn out voters perceived to be more likely to vote the way it would want. But it went beyond just voting one way or another to the point of dividing Americans.
“What is happening today in America, Russia is probably pleased about.”
If a primary focus of the IRA was to suppress the Black vote and exacerbate racial tension, is the recent nationwide movement following George Floyd’s death something Russia is happy about?
What’s happening today is obviously not caused by Russia. It’s caused by systemic issues and failures in the United States over time. But it suits Russia’s interest, because the objective of Russian foreign policy is to degrade American democracy and to portray American democracy as a dysfunctional system to the rest of the world.
I spent about half a day with Oleg Kalugin, who was a KGB general, and he said to me just exactly that: “We spent all of the Cold War trying to show the world that America’s actually just a hotbed of racism or a hotbed of hatred in order to show that it’s not something to desire, that America should not be a leader in the international system, and that its democracy is just a dysfunctional mess.” What is happening today in America, Russia is probably pleased about.
In that sense, ironically, while many view these protests as a positive paradigm shift in American society, in Russia’s eyes it actually aligns with the country’s interest in making the United States seem weak and divided.
What Russia wouldn’t be pleased about is if we implemented effective policy reforms to make progress on these issues. Because if we do, if our democracy is functioning well, then Russia doesn’t have its propaganda, and if our democracy is functioning well, then it’s [easier] for us to lead abroad rather than get captivated by our own inequities at home. So it’s ironic in that we can do two things at once, which is we can vet our own democracy, and we can make progress in our competition with Russia.
So, in a sense, Russia is pleased with this national reckoning only to the extent that it doesn’t produce meaningful change. How would Russia then be responding to the moment to theoretically prevent that?
It’s hard to say for sure what they’re doing. The best indicator — that’s the whole point of my book — is the past. One example is a former employee at the IRA [who] said, “When there were Black people rioting about abuses in the United States, we would spread propaganda saying that policy toward Black Americans had failed and that America was just a racist mess.” So, it’s that kind of idea, which is spreading the propaganda around fissures, around divisions, around failures that already exist. That’s something Russia did in 2015 and 2016; that’s something Russia can be doing now.
But Russia could also go bigger than that, hypothetically. There’s a story that comes to mind — I talked to one of the KGB officers who helped orchestrate this. In 1960, there was a letter that arrived in the mailboxes of the UN delegates from a bunch of African and Asian countries that was signed by the Ku Klux Klan. This letter to these delegates said all these awful, racist things. It caused an international outrage, showing the world how Americans perceive all these people of these different counties. A delegate from Nigeria actually read the contents of the letter out loud in the UN General Assembly, saying that this is a letter we received from the KKK. But the truth was that that letter was actually a forgery. It was produced by the KGB in order to create just that kind of controversy — to showcase to the world that America is, in the words of one of the people who executed that operation, just a hotbed of hate.
How does the coronavirus play into this? How is Russia weaponizing the pandemic?
My concern about the pandemic is slightly different. Yes, I’m concerned about propaganda being spread around Covid-19 and around pandemic diseases.
But the thing that I am much more mindful of is that, in 2016, the leading if not exclusive concern of President Obama and his inner circle was that Russia was going to cause chaos on Election Day, was going to sabotage our voting systems. If we get to Election Day and there’s no actual plan for voting nationally — if you already have chaos at polling places, hours-long lines, people unsure how to cast their ballots safely without jeopardizing their health, uncertainty across the nation about whether this vote is actually legitimate — you have a real problem. Especially when the sitting president is saying that the vote’s going to be rigged.
How legitimate is the threat of Russia’s tampering in the voting process itself?
It’s extraordinarily legitimate. And the legitimacy of it is reflected in the actions that our governing officials took the last time around. What were President Obama, folks like John Brennan, Jim Clapper, Susan Rice doing in the fall of 2016? They were desperately seeking to stop Russia from taking advantage of its access into our election infrastructure and manipulating the tally and the voter data of the American people. On Election Day, there were crisis teams in the White House, in the Department of Homeland Security, bracing for that sort of attack.
Since then, we haven’t had a national response to the exposure of our voting systems in a mandated way. The way our election infrastructure works is that each state controls its voting system and controls its voting registration databases. So, the Department of Homeland Security can offer Georgia help with securing its voter databases, but Georgia could say to the Department of Homeland Security, “We’re not interested. Leave us alone.”
If, as I wish he would and hope he would, President Trump were to say, “If you interfere in our elections, you’ll pay a steep price,” Russia might actually reconsider how it was going to proceed.
If Trump has taken no action — and, in fact, has only invited interference in the past — where does that put the security of our electoral systems in 2020? Is anything being done?
I think the DHS is trying to make progress behind the scenes. Again, it can’t implement a nationwide response. Congress should pass mandatory cybersecurity requirements. Not to say to states that you need to hold your elections this or that way, but rather to just say, “You can’t have unencrypted voter databases that are easily accessible and manipulatable.” To do that sort of thing, that’s not on President Trump—that’s on Congress. They haven’t done that.
Many Americans still consider the notion of Russian interference in our elections as a partisan myth. How would you respond to them?
In 1960 and 1968, the Soviet Union interfered in our elections to try to destroy the candidacy of Richard Nixon, a Republican. In 1976, the Soviet Union again interfered in our election to destroy the candidacy of Ronald Reagan, a Republican. They did the same thing in 1984, trying to take down Ronald Reagan. In 2015, there’s evidence of Russian social media accounts spreading content that’s hostile to folks like Ted Cruz or Lindsey Graham. So, it’s not partisan. What the Soviet Union did, what Russia is now doing, is helping candidates who align with its interests and trying to sow discord and destabilize our democracy as an end to itself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.