How Disinformation Could Sway the 2020 Election

How Disinformation Could Sway the 2020 Election

DisinformationHow Disinformation Could Sway the 2020 Election


Published 11 September 2019

In 2016, Russian operatives used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to sow division among American voters and boost Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. What the Russians used to accomplish this is called “disinformation,” which is false or misleading content intended to deceive or promote discord. Now, with the first presidential primary vote only five months away, the public should be aware of the sources and types of online disinformation likely to surface during the 2020 election.



In 2016, Russian operatives used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to sow division among American voters and boost Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.


What the Russians used to accomplish this is called “disinformation,” which is false or misleading content intended to deceive or promote discord. Now, with the first presidential primary vote only five months away, the public should be aware of the sources and types of online disinformation likely to surface during the 2020 election.


First, the Russians will be back. Don’t be reassured by the notorious Russian Internet Research Agency’s relatively negligible presence during last year’s midterm elections. The agency might have been keeping its powder dry in anticipation of the 2020 presidential race. And it helped that U.S. Cyber Command, an arm of the military, reportedly blocked the agency’s internet access for a few days right before the election in November 2018.


Temporarily shutting down the Internet Research Agency won’t be enough to stop the flow of harmful content. Lee Foster, who leads the disinformation team at the cybersecurity firm FireEye, told me in an interview that the agency is “a small component of the overall Russian operation,” which also includes Moscow’s military intelligence service and possibly other organizations. Over time, Foster said, “All of these actors rework their approaches and tactics.”


And there’s more to fear than just the Russians. I’m the author of a new report on disinformation and the 2020 election published by the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. In the report, I predict that the Russians won’t be alone in spreading disinformation in 2020. Their most likely imitator will be Iran, especially if hostility between Tehran and Washington continues to mount.


Disinformation Isn’t Just Russian
In May, acting on a tip from FireEye, Facebook took down nearly 100 Iranian-related accounts, pages and groups. The Iranian network had used fake American identities to espouse both conservative and liberal political views, while also promoting extremely divisive anti-Saudi, anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian themes.


As Senate Intelligence Committee co-chair Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, has said, “The Iranians are now following the Kremlin’s playbook.”


While foreign election interference has dominated discussion of disinformation, most intentionally false content targeting U.S. social media is generated by domestic sources.