How much election "meddling" is really going on with Russia and China?

On Saturday, John looked at the conclusion drawn by intelligence officials that Russia would prefer to see Donald Trump win a second term while China and Iran would like to see Joe Biden replace him in the Oval Office. With just a quick glance at the headline, you’d be forgiven for thinking that with “friends” like those, neither of the candidates is in need of any enemies. But assuming that the intelligence estimates are accurate – and I have no reason to suspect they are not – what would these global adversaries be planning to actually do about it? For a deeper look at that question, let’s review part of the Associated Press coverage of this story and how such international actors might try to dip a toe into our voting pool.

The latest intelligence assessment reflects concerns not only about Russia but China and Iran as well, warning that hostile foreign actors may seek to compromise election infrastructure, interfere with the voting process or call into question voting results. Despite those efforts, officials see it as unlikely that anyone could manipulate voting results in any sweeping way, [William] Evanina said.

“Many foreign actors have a preference for who wins the election, which they express through a range of overt and private statements; covert influence efforts are rarer,” said Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. “We are primarily concerned about the ongoing and potential activity by China, Russia and Iran.”

Two of the possible suggestions on the list sound quite serious indeed. Either compromising our election infrastructure or interfering with the voting process would be tantamount to an act of war and throw our entire electoral process into a tailspin. But even our own intelligence experts are saying that such scenarios are “unlikely” and covert influence efforts are rare.

Compromising our election infrastructure could take a number of forms, but they would need to either alter a ton of paper ballots or hack into the electronic reporting systems. Either of those should be immediately obvious if done on a large enough scale to significantly influence the outcome. Besides, if all of the states that have no experience in massive mail-in voting attempt to do it on statewide scales this fall, we’ll have compromised our own election infrastructure quite enough, thank you very much.

The other possibilities being mentioned are far more subtle and tougher to define as actual “meddling” or interference. Foreign leaders no doubt have their own preferences as to who wins the election just as we have preferences about theirs. It may be considered rude and contrary to protocol for leaders to weigh in on another country’s elections, but it’s hardly against the law. Besides, if you’re waiting to base your vote this fall on the preference expressed by Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, I have more questions about whether you should be voting than what they have to say.

All that leaves us with is the so-called social media tampering. Foreign actors can certainly create armies of Twitter and Facebook bots to trash one candidate or try to help build support for another. The social media giants can’t stamp them out and there’s clearly room for debate as to whether they should even try. But what of it if some pseudonymous Twitter account is saying terrible things about Trump or Biden? Every voter is responsible for gathering their own information when making their electoral decisions. If you blithely believe everything you see from the Twitter account of someone you’ve never heard of in real life, is it really the fault of Zhang Wei or Demetri if you were blind enough to fall for their nonsense?

In the end, there’s plenty of verifiable information out there about both candidates. There’s also a limitless supply of hyperbole, exaggerations and dodgy allegations coming from the two national parties’ election committees without worrying about the Twitter account of @DatRussiaBoy387z. If we’re going to see any serious foul play in our elections it’s almost certainly going to be pulled off by domestic sources engaging in ballot harvesting or identity theft. If you want to focus on actual threats to our elections, consider supporting efforts to clean up the voter rolls in all fifty states.

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