In April 2021, President Biden announced new sanctions on Moscow as punishment for meddling in the 2020 Election and for a recent cyberattack on US governmental and corporate institutions. The sanctions were placed on thirty-two entities and individuals involved in the spread of disinformation, as well as expelling ten Russian diplomats from the US. With justice now served and America finally able to breathe with the election of Biden, could this be the final news we hear about election meddling by Russia? Or is this less of a Trump issue, and more likely the beginning of a concern that will reappear every four years.

In the 2016 Election, the electoral fraud involved international tactics, including the WikiLeaks of Hillary Clinton’s emails and Russian military intelligence hacking the Democratic Nation Committee’s servers. However, the majority of election meddling involved the sharing of misinformation through grassroot efforts on social media platforms. This form of election meddling may foster an image of a darkly lit basement with trained hackers deleting votes in the polls, yet Russia relied on a method almost so simple your grandma could have done it. Through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms, Russian entities, many linked to the Internet Research Agency, created posts involving controversial political topics in America. Their goal was to use our ever-growing political division to create further confusion through provocative posts by fake accounts soliciting the spread of disinformation and conspiracies. However, unlike the 2016 election, Americans seemed to beat Russians at creating false narratives and conspiracies in 2020. Russia simply had to spread them. The social media posts targeted all political preferences, yet the majority of false information involved support for Trump’s campaign, followed by a minor focus on Bernie’s bid for the Democratic candidacy. Therefore, Russia never needed to tamper with the electoral results. Instead, our democratic system provided them with a divisive, captured audience for their false information.

Trump’s political rise with Russian meddling in the election is likely a result of being in the right place at the right time. Trump served for decades as an American businessman looking to invest in new properties, perfect for Russian “black-cash” funds to enter the United States. However, this joint business interest proved to pay off in the political realm with Trump’s candidacy in 2016, offering a friendly face at the front of international diplomacy. Therefore, Russia’s electoral meddling and Russian money laundering through Trump existed and flourished on two separate paths, finally conjoining in 2016 to form the perfect storm. Trump and Putin simply play at elections the same way they play in business. The rules never defined their capabilities, and loopholes and denying could make any problem appear as a baseless claim.

Yet, if Trump provided the perfect circumstances for success, the increased confidence in electoral meddling is likely to only convince Moscow to pursue it further. At the root of the electoral meddling, Putin and Moscow are interested in creating havoc and a nationwide lack of faith in the American political institution. And with division deeply rooted in American politics, they will likely always find future politicians that align with their interests and are worth supporting. Trump may have provided the most suitable option and allowed us to see the full extent of Russia’s influence, but there will always be available candidates.

For all of the protections and limitations the US implements, Russia is not a rule follower. While the task may become more burdensome, there will always be an incentive and loophole for Moscow to influence the US elections. And with the US wary to disturb the already rocky relationship with Russia over disinformation, Putin and his posse are unlikely to face punishments significant enough to dissuade their further influence. While Biden may be pursuing direct efforts against Russian governmental entities, there have been efforts to also stop the posting of false information. Facebook is developing new algorithms to determine the bots and fake accounts producing these posts by Russian actors, yet this occurs after the information has already spread. If Russia continues to pursue misinformation through social media websites, limiting its posting will also threaten our right to speech, so it is unlikely to be implemented. Instead, fake accounts and misinformation will be posted and spread, with social media campaigns only able to remove the information after it has taken root. At that point, voters are more likely to remember the provocative information they originally read rather than know it was removed. With complaints already existing that right wing voices are obstructed or silenced on social media, stricter methods to identify Russian actors are likely to find similar results.

When it comes to election meddling, American voters are Moscow’s greatest strength and weakness. Their influence can only go as far as the reposts and likes. And to their benefit, American political discourse is becoming just as delusional as Russian fake news. Every discussion of Russian meddling is a win for Moscow, as it further chips at the foundation of American democracy. Therefore, as we scroll through our Uncle’s alt right Facebook posts in years to come, we will likely see the work of a Russian actor trying to manipulate the perspectives of voters halfway around the world.

###

Image Credit: the feature caricature of Vladimir Putin carrying his buddy Donald Trump was created by DonkeyHotey (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Kelsey Doerr

Kelsey Doerr

Kelsey Doerr is a graduate of Berry College with a B.A. in International Affairs from Marietta, Georgia. She is interested in pursuing a career in international development through nonprofit or governmental agencies.