Between now and the next U.S. presidential election in 2020, Western voters will go to the polls in more than 20 elections. Looking at recent cases of election meddling in both the U.S. and Europe, and the patchy responses from our democratic institutions, there is every reason to believe that these elections provide 20 ripe new targets for Russia and others to interfere. Foreign interference is a relatively low-cost affair in terms of human or financial resources needed. Yet it brings the almost guaranteed advantage of undermining confidence in our legitimate institutions, something non-democratic regimes like Russia relish in. Worryingly, Western governments are still fighting the last war: They’re stuck in the blunt 2016 lexis of “fake news,” while current trends indicate that Russia and similar adversaries are sharpening their toolkit.
First, we see a shift from fake news to hyper-partisan narratives. These are stories often with a grain of truth but with distorted facts to produce a polarizing public story. We saw that during the Italian election, where social media accounts and bots tied to Russia amplified stories about the threat of illegal immigration. Alongside a fatigue of Italian voters with the political establishment, this became the wedge issue, giving two populist and anti-migrant parties the largest share of votes. The problem with hyper-partisan content is that this is less detectable than news that is outright fake. Combating it requires a more comprehensive effort from all democratic actors, governments, media, NGOs and voters, which is lacking today.
Meanwhile, we are seeing an internationalization of the interference playbook. Although the 2016 presidential election might have attracted the greatest media scrutiny, the U.S. is far from the only target; Russia is actively exporting its interference platform to other countries. The Catalonian referendum saw an unprecedented level of social media trolling and distorted facts originating from Venezuela. Eyes now turn to how Venezuela might be used in the upcoming Mexican election. Other non-democratic states like Iran and China, and also Turkey are watching closely. Just weeks ago, the Twitter accounts of several European politicians, including one co-author, were hacked, supposedly by Turkish operatives, spreading fake news about the 2016 botched coup.