Election Misinformation Comes From Inside And Outside U.S. National security officials say Russia is again trying to disrupt the election. But this time, it doesn't have to work so hard because Americans are spreading mistruths and doubts about the election.
NPR logo

'Russia Doesn't Have To Make Fake News': Biggest Election Threat Is Closer To Home

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/917725209/918317601" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Russia Doesn't Have To Make Fake News': Biggest Election Threat Is Closer To Home

'Russia Doesn't Have To Make Fake News': Biggest Election Threat Is Closer To Home

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/917725209/918317601" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

National security officials say Russia is at it again - trying to disrupt the U.S. election and give President Trump a boost through hacking and spreading falsehoods on social media just like in 2016. This time, Russia may not have to work as hard. Clint Watts studies disinformation at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

CLINT WATTS: Russia doesn't have to make fake news. They just repeat, you know, what conspiracies are coming out of the White House and the administration.

SHAPIRO: Americans, including the president of the United States, are raising the possibility of violence, spreading falsehoods about the election online and casting doubt on the whole process. To discuss the dangers, foreign and domestic, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and our tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

Good to have you both here.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So, Greg, let's start with you. Is Russia the only foreign threat or just the biggest right now?

MYRE: It's the biggest foreign threat, and the national security officials and analysts who are studying this are really absolutely clear - Russia is the main foreign threat. It wants to help Donald Trump win reelection. And China and Iran are the other countries that are also mentioned but at a much lower level.

Now, there's a big difference this time. The national security establishment, private researchers and the media are all much more prepared for this kind of disinformation this time. Far more eyeballs are looking for fake social media accounts, planted stories. Just to give you one example, in the 2018 midterms, the National Security Agency sent cyber teams to Europe to shut down the Russian troll factory that had been involved in the 2016 elections. So as far as we know, no foreign campaign has gained any real traction.

SHAPIRO: But is it possible that the 2020 playbook is more advanced and sophisticated and may be escaping the notice of people who are looking for the kinds of things we saw in 2016?

MYRE: Definitely a possibility. Microsoft put out a big report. They said it's the same Russian agency - military intelligence - that's at it again, but they are using different tactics. They were using a lot of bots and automated social media accounts last time. This time, they're going to great lengths to hide their tracks. They're trying to hire Americans who unwittingly will write stories for websites. So yes, the playbook has changed.

SHAPIRO: So, Shannon, tell us about what's happening in the United States. What are you hearing from tech companies and the experts who study this?

BOND: Well, they're very alarmed. I spoke with Yoel Roth. He's in charge of site integrity at Twitter. And he puts it really succinctly.

YOEL ROTH: The people who know the most about how to mislead Americans are other Americans.

BOND: So what security researchers are warning is that, you know, the atmosphere is just so ripe for disinformation right now. We're living with so much uncertainty, and that opens the door for bad actors to undermine confidence in voting, in the election results, because of the changes that are happening during the pandemic. There's also worries that bad actors could use fears about COVID to discourage voting. And there are real concerns about extremist groups that could use social media to incite violence.

And this also creates opportunity for foreign actors to amplify disinformation that Americans are spreading, like those baseless claims that we keep hearing about voting fraud from President Trump. And domestic disinformation is more challenging in some ways for the platforms than foreign meddling. You know, if they were going to take action against somebody like the president, that inevitably becomes sort of a political football. Those calls can be much tougher for Facebook and Twitter to make than taking down Russian bots.

SHAPIRO: And we've seen some of that in the last few months. Tell us about what these companies are doing.

BOND: Yeah. Well, they're doing a lot more than they used to. Both Twitter and Facebook have new rules against misinformation about voting, against casting doubt on results or making premature claims of victory in the aftermath of the election. Especially Twitter has stepped up labeling posts from the president. That's something we just didn't see them do really until the last few months.

They also say they're working together. There are monthly meetings with the industry and government and law enforcement agencies to discuss these threats and their responses. And both companies say they've gamed out more extreme measures that would stop real-world risks like voter suppression and violence, but they don't give us a lot of details on what those might be.

SHAPIRO: Can we say yet how that's going?

BOND: Well, critics say Facebook especially is still just too slow at this. It doesn't label or remove posts in many cases until after they've spread widely. The Biden campaign sent Facebook a letter this week, condemning it for not just taking down Trump's false claims about voting. It called Facebook, quote, "the nation's foremost propagator of disinformation about the voting process." Facebook says it applies its rules impartially. And we should note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. But, you know, what I hear again and again about social media platforms - this isn't just a question of, are they setting the right rules? It's, how are they enforcing those rules?

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, Greg, the president of the United States is repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of the election and saying things about voting that are just flatly false. How is that shaping this discussion?

MYRE: Yes, this has had an impact. The Russian goal for years and years has been to undermine the credibility of the U.S. political system. And now we have a president declaring at campaign events that mail-in ballots aren't credible, that this is the most corrupt election in U.S. history. It's a sharp contrast from what we hear from officials like FBI Director Chris Wray, who say election systems have been hardened, tested and retested, and it will be extremely difficult to tamper with votes.

SHAPIRO: As we enter this final month, do you expect things are going to get worse?

MYRE: Well, we should be aware of any potential surprises. Violence around the election is one big concern. But another is the fact that officials are saying we may not have a winner on the night of November 3, and the country shouldn't panic if that is indeed the case.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre and tech correspondent Shannon Bond.

Thank you both.

BOND: Thank you.

MYRE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAERTS' "WINGS")

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.