In a piece for the Daily Beast, Adam Rawnsley lists off the countries with the most to gain by interfering in the 2020 election in order to gain favor with President Donald Trump now that Republicans in the Senate have decided foreign interference is not a criminal or impeachable offense.
With the GOP prepared to acquit the president over attempting to shake Ukraine down by trading foreign aid for dirt on Vice President Joe Biden, foreign government wanting to curry favor with the president are likely looking at ways they can lend a helping hand to get him re-elected in what promised to be a tightly contested election.
"Impeachment is effectively over, and that means the Senate is not too worked up about the prospect of inviting foreign interference in American elections. Given that Monday marks the start of the Iowa caucuses and the official kickoff of election season, maybe now is a good time to start thinking through who might attempt a repeat of 2016," write Rawnsley, before checking off the likely potential countries.
Unsurprisingly leading the list is Russia, with the report stating, "A string of announcements from Facebook about the suspension of Russia-linked fake news and troll accounts long after the 2016 election shows that Moscow’s troll farms haven’t folded since President Trump came to power. Quite the opposite. One of those campaigns, an operation dubbed 'Secondary Infektion' by researchers at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, was taken down by Facebook in May 2019. The effort, attributed to Russia, involved forged screenshots and documents that targeted politicians in the U.S. and U.K., among other countries, and sought to exacerbate tensions over hot button political issues like Brexit and the Mueller investigation of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign."
According to the report, "So will the Russians pull a repeat play in 2020? The Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote in 2019 that American spies expect social media disinformation from any country may not look the same as the 2016 campaign. State-run trolls will likely 'refine their capabilities' and the 'threat landscape could look very different in 2020 and future elections,' it wrote."
Next on the list is China which has been locked in a trade war with the president and has every reason to want to get more favorable trade terms.
"Hackers from the People’s Liberation Army have grasped the American idiom enough to fool American defense contractors, federal officials, and corporate employees into clicking on phishing links and malware from phony authors, but their cousins in Beijing’s disinformation apparatus seem to have a looser grasp of American culture," the report states however, "Elise Thomas, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who has studied Twitter’s China disinformation datasets, cautioned against drawing too many conclusions about China’s social media capabilities, because the data available thus far is limited. "
Rawnsley notes, "China, however, doesn’t appear to have the same appetite for covertly influencing American politics through social media as Russia, and the appearance of a Chinese troll factory seems remote."
Next in his list is Saudi Arabia which has been handled with kid gloves by the Trump administration, with the report stating, " Much of what we know about Saudi disinformation comes from the campaigns overseen by one man, Saud al-Qahtani. Qahtani served as an adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on intelligence and cybersecurity issues, and the chief of the Saudi government’s shadowy Center for Studies and Media Affairs, which housed his online troll farm and assorted cyber mischief."
"So are the Saudis likely to venture into election meddling come the 2020 election? 'It’s true Bezos, Khashoggi and NSO Group stuff have had blowback, but none of this appears to have dampened the enthusiasm of the Saudi regime,' said Marc Owen Jones, a professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University. 'I am already aware of a potentially new tactic the Saudis are using to infiltrate Trump’s online support base.'"
Finally, Iran, which has been at odds with the president, may have an interest in working to select the candidate of their choice.
"Iran’s capabilities and intentions are easier to gauge. Since at least 2017, the Islamic Republic has operated a large network of fake news websites and social media trolls aimed at audiences in the U.S., Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Africa," te report notes. "Within that network were a large number of accounts focused on the U.S. and American politics in 2017 and 2018. Facebook and Twitter took down the accounts thanks to a tipoff from FireEye, which first discovered the trolling campaign. The offending accounts posed as primarily left-wing Americans and fans of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and offered opinions on subjects including the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh."
"Whether Iran will try to meddle in the 2020 election seems like an easier question to answer: It was already wading into election politics two years ago and has little to fear in terms of additional sanctions or a worsening relationship with the U.S., given the tensions between the Trump administration and Tehran," Rawnsley wrote. "Judging by the volume of activity, it appears that Iranian officials at least believe the work is valuable to their interests. In a threat briefing in 2019, the director of national intelligence wrote that Iran 'will continue to use online influence operations to try to advance its interests.'"
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