Intelligence Community Expecting More Russian Interference This Election Cycle

October 5, 2020 by Reece Nations
U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin give a joint news conference following their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018. (Mikhail Metzel/Tass/Abaca Press/TNS)

The United States’ intelligence community is expecting active Russian disinformation efforts to influence the results of the 2020 presidential election, according to analysis by the RAND Corporation.

Among the corporation’s key findings was that technological innovation has made widespread propaganda efforts by Russia easier to conduct than previous disinformation campaigns by the Soviets during the Cold War, according to the report. These efforts are designed to “elicit strong reactions” that “drive people to extreme positions,” thereby lowering the chances that a consensus will be reached on election night.

Although Russia’s attempts at subverting American democracy were well-documented following the 2016 presidential election, the Department of Justice indicted the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency for election interference dating back to 2014, according to the report.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a redacted report detailing Russia’s “active measures” campaign that sought to influence the 2016 election. 

“Our adversaries will persist in their efforts to undermine our shared democratic values,” the Senate report concludes. “In order to ensure that our democracy endures, it is imperative that we recognize the threat and make the investments necessary to withstand the next attack.”

Amid other findings, the RAND Corporation’s report noted studies that examined Russian influence on U.S. elections focused on different units of analysis. While some studies were mainly concerned with the propaganda itself, others examined how it gets disseminated through information networks or how to properly shield consumers from it.

The RAND Corporation’s recommendations on combating foreign influence were to adopt a “holistic” approach to anticipate which groups of Americans are the likeliest targets, and to implement “evidence-based preventive practices” to stifle propaganda.

The report states the intellectual basis of Russia’s efforts is rooted in “reflexive control theory.” This theory maintains “control” can be asserted over populations by conveying information that leads them to some predetermined decision.

Reflexive control theory was developed by Vladimir Lefebvre and others and first appeared in Soviet military literature in the 1960s, according to the report. Reflexive control differs from “game theory” in that it operates from the basis individuals do not act rationally, and instead act “according to their image of the world and their image of their adversary’s image of the world.” 

The structure of reflexive control theory “implies that a person’s decisions depend on what is socially desirable,” and that their perception can be manipulated when outside parties disseminate false content, eliciting a desired reaction.

“If someone is ‘one of them’ and if ‘they’ are a monolithic group easily summarized by one characteristic, then perceptions are more easily manipulated and reinforced,” the text of the RAND report read. “Thus, we hypothesize that reflexive control in practice is a priming technique that encourages people to self-identify with a particular group and to simplify the characterization of that group as homogenous and ultimately in conflict with another group.” 

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