The 2020 US Presidential Elections and Their Aftermath May Lead into Increased Short-and Medium-Term Instability
Based on the ample evidence and documented in reports that have bipartisan support, Russia meddled with the US presidential elections back in 2016. In support of the meddling, Kremlin deployed many tools, such as human operators to court the Trump campaign and disinformation operations taking advantage of a wide array of platforms from the typical social media platforms and fabricated online sources to mainstream media. Kremlin also launched hack-and-leak operations targeting the Clinton campaign with the help of unwitting and witting accomplices such as Wikileaks. Russian security services have also been tied to scanning, probing, and at times successfully penetrating the electoral infrastructure stopping short of changing the votes or voter registration rolls.
Together with the results they provided, foreign power meddling efforts were to varying degrees invited, welcomed, amplified, and celebrated by the Trump campaign and people surrounding it back in 2016. The Russian activities such as stolen emails leaked to the public received wide mainstream media attention together with the hype on social media platforms produced both by real members of the electorate, and trolls and bots alike.
All the above was mixed with overall long-term political polarization, pre-existing societal fractures, and erosion of trust in public institutions and traditional media among the general populace to create a toxic cocktail. The election results were also affected by the disenfranchisement of some voters, gerrymandering, and application of other tools of manipulating political realities such as active voter discouragement, suppression and disqualification. All these impacted the results of the election, which was, in the end, decided in a few key battle states by less than 80,000 votes.
As the 2020 US presidential elections are about to take place on November 3, there is little evidence suggesting that the foreign powers would have lost their interest in the United States’ electoral process. While it is perfectly normal to expect foreign powers to collect swaths of information regarding the elections, incumbents together with their campaigns, and electoral processes to support their intelligence assessments regarding the possible outcomes of the elections and the policies that will follow with the newly elected administration, the meddling with the process and its outcomes is not acceptable.
According to public assessments, the number of potential sources for foreign influence operation has grown to include, in addition to Russia, also China and Iran. Nevertheless, it appears that the most dangerous player with pre-existing and battle-tested capabilities, not to forget a strong political motivation, is Russia. Though, it should not be assumed that the Russian active measures campaign would be solely concentrated to meddle only with the ongoing elections process and its outcomes, nor should it be assumed that it will follow the exact patterns and playbook used during the 2016 elections.
It is very tempting for Russia to meddle with the upcoming elections in a way, which increases the likelihood of contested election results, diminished trust in the results, distrust in democratic processes and institutions among the electorate, and increased political polarization having the potential to lead to violence. Meddling can also target the US government’s internal cohesion, for example, by intentionally attempting to erode the credibility of the intelligence community, their dedication to strict nonpartisanship, and their usefulness in the eyes of the decisionmakers. Once again, Russian operations would not have to invent or create anything new, but to utilize the existing societal wounds and grudges, openly expressed sentiments by the political leaders, and concentrate on fanning the already existing flames.
It is within Russian interests to have the White House under Trump’s rule and the Senate in the GOP hands. In any case, it serves Russia’s interests that the White House and the congress are not governed by the same party, and particularly not by the Democrats. Thus, it is not far-fetched to assume that Russians are having vested interest in Senate races, particularly in the key swing states, in addition to meddling with the Presidential Elections.
Not in conflict with the assessment above, it is worth noting that Russia’s interests lie not only with a particular candidate, party, or other actors. They try to utilize and manipulate the current circumstances for their benefit to cause the maximum amount of division among the populace and overall chaos and political turmoil to distract the United States and lessen the US influence in global affairs. Looking from the Kremlin perspective, a political crisis in the still leading liberal democracy in the world would allow Kremlin to show to their domestic audiences the turmoil as a confirmation of the Kremlin’s portrayal of Western democracies. The portrayal suggests Western democracies in decline and democratic processes as a sham leading to societal instability. Furthermore, at times, outsized Western attention to Russian meddling bolsters Russia’s superpower status, at least in the Russian political technologists’ minds.
Prolonged instability in the US, particularly under continued Trump rule, would also serve Kremlin’s hand by putting a further strain on transatlantic relations between the European Union and the United States. Similar kinds of strained relationships would be expected between the US and other key allies that do not share the populist zero-sum agenda. Weakened Western alliances and relationships would open Kremlin possible avenues to continue their destabilizing agenda in their near abroad. For example, it could put countries such as Ukraine under threat of increased intensity of hostilities. Similar developments and opportunistic destabilizing activities may also be expected in the near surroundings of other current world order challenging powers, like China.
It is also important to acknowledge that any efforts to meddle with the elections now face increased resistance. Many actions and initiatives have been taken to diminish particularly foreign interference with the elections. The US government agencies have communicated their findings, the perpetrators have been named, shamed, and sanctioned, and non-governmental organizations and commercial entities have launched initiatives to uncover and stop the influence operations. In addition, researchers and private citizens have increased the overall understanding of the mechanisms in play behind the influence operations. Nevertheless, many of the activities are inherently reactive and post-factum in their nature. Thus, while some of the impact of influence operations may be mitigated, it is fair to assume that the impacts cannot be removed or avoided entirely.
As we wrote last year, cyber operations and the spreading of disinformation are potent vehicles against the companies. Further still, they may take advantage of companies and their employees in pursuit of political goals. The perpetrators may take advantage of companies’ position in society or their services, such as communications platforms, to achieve their primary goals. The perpetrators may also be utilizing companies and their market positions as a tool to disrupt the markets where companies operate. In this context, it is good to note that the perpetrators threatening companies may include, in addition to hostile foreign powers and other parties, also domestic parties seeking political gains and advancement of their political agenda.
Like in the case of candidates, their political parties, and campaign organizations, the perpetrators could weaponize real or fake information about companies’ activities, or companies having known linkages to questionable parties, or parties framed as such, to reach their main goals. Weaponized information could be released on a range of media platforms targeting the selected audiences by using a combination of social media posts, alternative media platforms, fabricated outlets, and traditional media. Weaponized information tied to a relevant context, such as ongoing elections, ensuring the media interest could be primed to frame companies’ and the associated parties’ activities in an unwanted context or appear unethical or against the target audiences’ norms and goals. In addition to companies, also singled out employees could be utilized for this purpose. All this could impact companies’ reputation, market standing, and their ability to conduct business negatively, even though companies were never a prime target but were just used as a tool to support the perpetrator’s conduct of political warfare.
Therefore, it is worthwhile for the companies to understand how influence and disinformation operations work and some of the tactics and tools that are used. Moreover, it is crucial to map out as a part of the threats and risks identification process how the company may end up being tangled in such operations either as a target or as collateral damage. Additionally, how the risk can be mitigated and what the potential response mechanisms are, should that risk realize, should be covered. All the above holds true particularly, if a company has got, for example, political weight due to its sheer size, offers critical backend or front-end services relevant to the political parties, their campaigns or the overall elections process, runs popular mass-market services, serves as a media platform, or partners somehow with the key targets, for example by offering communications or analytical services.
In addition to the direct targeting, the potential and rather probable political turmoil in the United States following the upcoming elections should be high in the company risk assessments for the coming years. Any prolonged political fighting between the various fragments of the society ranging from the level experienced during the past years to rather improbable serious armed clashes around the country would all have adverse ripple effects impacting the global business environment. Furthermore, such developments, particularly those in the most violent end of the spectrum, would force the United States to divert their attention and powers increasingly to domestic matters. This, in turn, would further encourage the authoritarian states to act and utilize their increased maneuver space to work against the interests of the liberal world and thus would further destabilize the geopolitical situation and global markets alike.