WASHINGTON (AP) – Russia did not need to lift a finger.
In the weeks before the US presidential election, federal authorities warned that Russia or other foreign countries may disseminate false information about the results in order to discredit the legitimacy of the result.
It turns out that the highest megaphone for this message did not belong to Russia, but to President Donald Trump, who has trumpeted a blizzard of thoroughly refuted claims to proclaim that he, not the elected President Joe Biden, was the rightful winner.
The resulting chaos is in line with Russia̵
“For a while at this point, the Kremlin has been able to essentially just use and amplify the content, the fake and misleading and sensational, politically divisive content generated by political officials and Americans themselves” rather than create their own narratives and content, said former CIA officer Cindy Otis, vice president of analysis at Alethea Group, which tracks disinformation.
U.S. officials had been on high alert for foreign interference heading into November 3, especially after a presidential election four years earlier in which Russian intelligence officers hacked Democratic emails and Russian witchcraft companies used social media to sway public opinion.
Public announcement from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s cyber security arm warned of how Russia or other countries could intervene again, including by creating or modifying websites after the election to spread false information about the results “in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in American democratic institutions.”
Yet many of the false claims about voting, elections, and candidates in the months and weeks before the election – and in the days since – stem not from foreign actors eager to destabilize the United States, but from domestic groups and Trump himself.
“Almost all of this is domestic,” said Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a member of the Election Integrity Partnership, a group of leading disinformation experts who studied online misinformation in the run-up to the 2020 election.
Stamos said that while there were some small indications of foreign interference on social media, it corresponded to “nothing that has been so interesting” compared to the stream of allegations that Americans shared.
Although Russian hackers had targeted state and local networks in the weeks before the election, election day came and went without the dreaded attacks on the voting infrastructure, and federal officials and other experts have said there is no evidence that the voting systems were compromised or any votes were lost or changed.
This does not mean that Russia was completely silent during the election or immediately after. For example, English-language websites linked by the US government to Russia have amplified stories suggesting voice problems or fraud.
Intelligence officials warned in August that Russia was engaged in a concerted effort to assassinate Biden and appointed a Ukrainian parliamentarian who has met with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani has been central to Trump’s election campaign and argued for a lawsuit in Pennsylvania on Tuesday and appeared at a news conference Thursday filled with debunked allegations, including a fictional story that a server hosting evidence of irregularities in the poll was in Germany.
Trump retweeted a post criticizing the news media for not more aggressively covering the news conference. More broadly, he has helped drive the dissemination of inaccurate information through a disinformation machine that relies on social media, conservative radio and television outlets, and the reinforcement of his millions of followers.
Zignal Labs, a media intelligence company in San Francisco, identified and tracked millions of social media posts about postal voting in the months leading up to the election and found major spikes immediately after several of Trump’s tweets.
An example: On July 30, Trump tweeted misinformation about mail voting three separate times, including stating without proof that mail voting would be an “easy way” for foreign opponents to interfere, calling the process inaccurate and fraudulent, and repeated a false distinction that absent ballot papers are somehow more secure than mail ballot papers when both are treated equally.
Together, these three tweets were republished by other users more than 100,000 times and liked more than 430,000 times – leading to the spread of misinformation about mail voting that day and helping Trump dominate the online discussion throughout the week, according to Zignal’s analysis.
Many of the false allegations seen on Election Day stem from American voters themselves, whose posts about unfounded allegations of voter fraud were then sent to millions more people by Trump allies. This reinforcement allows isolated or misleading claims to spread more widely.
“You don’t talk so much about grassroots activity,” Stamos said. “You’re talking about top-down activity that facilitates these people’s ability to create these audiences.”
Researchers at Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society analyzed social media and news stories about voter fraud, stating that “Fox News and Donald Trump’s own campaign were far more influential in spreading false beliefs than Russian trolls or Facebook clickbait artists. ”
One of the researchers, Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler, said that when his team looked at sudden increases in online talk of voter fraud, they almost always followed a comment from Trump or top allies.
Justin Levitt, an election law expert at Loyola Law School, said, unlike four years ago, “now we do not need a foreign military unit to attack us. We have a CEO who does just that ”and is working to spread disinformation.
“It’s even more dangerous this time,” he added, “than it was in 2016.”
Klepper reported from Providence, Rhode Island. Associated Press author Colleen Long of Washington contributed to this report.