Russia sought to sway US voters towards Donald Trump and away from Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential election by perpetrating another expansive social media and online influence campaign similar to the operation from 2016, a newly declassified American intelligence report has concluded.
The Russians’ 2020 misinformation campaign was aimed at “denigrating President [Joe] Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President [Donald] Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US,” the report states.
Russian President Vladimir Putin directed the influence campaign, the report assesses.
US intelligence officials who compiled the report for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) did not find any evidence that foreign adversaries, including Russia, tried to tamper with US elections infrastructure.
“Unlike in 2016, we did not see persistent Russian cyber efforts to gain access to election infrastructure,” the report states.
Investigators discovered “no indications that any foreign actor attempted to alter any technical aspect of the voting process in the 2020 US elections, including voter registration, casting ballots, vote tabulation, or reporting results,” it states.
In other words, investigators isolated numerous examples of “election influence” efforts but did not discern that “election interference” took place.
The report defines election influence as including “overt and covert efforts by foreign governments [and their agents] intended to affect directly or indirectly a US election,” such as wielding influence over certain candidates, political parties, voters and their preferences, or undermining faith in political processes.
Election interference is defined as a “subset” of election influence whereby a malign actor targets “the technical aspects of the election, including voter registration, casting and counting ballots, or reporting results.”
The ODNI report released publicly on Tuesday tracks with a statement from the Department of Homeland Security on the day after the election that the department found no tampering with the physical election process by any malign actor.
“After millions of Americans voted, we have no evidence any foreign adversary was capable of preventing Americans from voting or changing vote tallies,” the DHS said on 4 November, the day after Election Day.
Russia not alone
Russia was not the only US adversary that attempted to influence the outcome of the 2020 election, according to the report.
Iran, Hezbollah, Cuba, and Venezuela stepped up their own efforts to sway the election, mostly away from Mr Trump.
According to the report, Iran “carried out a multi-pronged covert influence campaign” intended to undermine Mr Trump’s re-election prospects. But, the report notes, the US rival in the Middle East did so “without directly promoting his rivals” such as Mr Biden.
The Iranian ayatollah, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, authorised the influence campaign, which was carried out by the country’s military and intelligence services, the ODNI report states.
While ODNI investigators concluded that no foreign adversary attempted to alter or hack into any “technical aspect” of the 2020 voting and reporting process, Russia and Iran “spread false or inflated claims about alleged compromises of voting systems to undermine public confidence in election processes and results.”
China sits this one out
One US foreign adversary conspicuously sidelined from operations to bend the US election towards its will was China, which deployed neither the influence efforts nor the more sinister technical interference tactics that other countries used.
“China sought stability in its relationship with the United States, did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk getting caught meddling, and assessed its traditional influence tools — primarily targeted economic measures and lobbying — would be sufficient to meet its goal of shaping US China policy regardless of the winner,” the ODNI report states.
The National Intelligence Officer for the cyber division, however, noted that China “did take some steps to try to undermine former President Trump’s re-election.”