Election Interference & Political Disruption

By Chloe Hirth

Election interference at its basis involves a disruption in a political election. However, this term encompasses a complex history of foreign election interference in which countries manipulate or infiltrate elections in other political systems. The American presidential election in 2016 between now-President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fostered national debates and investigations around this exact topic. 

In July 2016 before Election Day, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began an inquiry into the connection between Donald Trump’s campaign and officials in Russia. The American House of Representatives and the Senate started their own investigations into Russian interference in the upcoming election, followed by countless debates and speculations from the national media. Though located across the world, Russia became a crucial figure in American conversations surrounding the election at home. 

Special Counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate potential connections between the Trump campaign team and Russia. He ultimately compiled this investigation into the Mueller Report. The Mueller Report found evidence of connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, but the report did not find adequate evidence to produce criminal charges against the Trump campaign. Some evidence was missing or incomplete, yet there was still evidence to affirm the presence of Russian interference in the election, much of which benefitted Donald Trump. 

Beginning as early as 2014, Russia targeted American constituents through media campaigns that denigrated Hillary Clinton and supported Donald Trump. These media campaigns were widespread and reached millions of Americans, notably through social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Secondly, the Clinton presidential campaign was targeted by a Russian intelligence service that worked to release documents that could hurt her presidential chances. 

But, why would Russia care about the United States’ presidential election and its candidates?

Russia’s interference in the election was largely weighted towards boosting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign at the cost of Hillary Clinton’s success. Underlying motivations may have been present, but Russia clearly wanted Donald Trump to be next in line for the highest American office. 

Since President Trump’s election in 2016, the United States has continued building its relationship with Russia via President Trump and President Putin. Russia has been officially led by Vladimir Putin since 2012 when he began his second non-consecutive term as president. President Putin and President Trump have seemingly developed a close relationship since the beginning of Trump’s presidency. President Trump even congratulated President Putin on his reelection in 2018 in a phone call between the two, even though Russian election interference was being investigated at the time. The two have seemingly remained close since then, despite many critiques. 

Okay, so Russia’s leaders helped elect President Trump in 2016. So, what now? 

With the 2020 election approaching, questions concerning foreign election interference are on the rise again. In early 2020, leaders in the United States House of Representatives were briefed on classified information of possible Russian election interference in the upcoming American election. The extent of this interference is still unclear, but it can not be ignored considering the 2016 election interference. Some Congressional leaders claimed that Russia was likely working to enhance President Trump’s reelection campaign, though some other leaders dissented. Similarly to 2016, Russia may be interested in maintaining a strong relationship with the United States, particularly under the leadership of Donald Trump. With this in mind, it is imperative that American leadership and constituents are extra cautious and aware during the election cycle. 

The 2020 United States election is already convoluted without foreign intervention, blurring the lines of what is fair and acceptable. The coronavirus pandemic halted many pivotal campaign events and rallies in the election cycle, and the pandemic has simultaneously dominated American minds and media. Yet, the election still persists. 

Due to the concerns of the pandemic, many Americans have prepared to vote by mail. President Trump, however, has denounced voting by mail and has argued that it will yield unfair or untrue election results. Many Americans have responded to this condemnation with criticism towards the president, meeting him with concern that in-person voting will be unsafe; many votes may also be suppressed due to unsafe conditions or lack of access to voting. 

The 2020 presidential election also shares complicated similarities to the 2016 election in the power of social media. The 2020 election includes a large pool of younger voters that have grown up in the world of media and technology. Because of this, there are unlimited opportunities to share information to both hurt or help political campaigns, so social media will have a large impact. For instance, many young adults and teenagers credited the social media app TikTok with helping disrupt one of President Trump’s campaign rallies. Young anti-Trump Tiktokers claimed to use the app to tell each other to purchase tickets to Trump’s rally in the hopes that the rally would be unsuccessful. When Trump’s rally occurred and lacked the expected amount of participants, many young Tiktokers boasted their success as a byproduct of the app and fellow Tiktokers. Small social and political movements within the Tiktok app occur on a daily basis, creating a powerful platform for Americans to share political opinions and social commentary. Recently, the app has become a topic of many larger political conversations as President Trump has begun threatening to ban the app due to national security concerns. Whereas the president claims that the app is a threat to American security, many young Tiktokers believe that the app is viewed as a threat to President Trump’s campaign because of the information that is being shared; he may think that the app is a threat to his reelection campaign. Removing or banning apps like Tiktok may not be direct election interference, but in the modern age of social media, doing so is a critical step in silencing many political conversations that could pivot an election. 

On another hand, media apps can be used to share powerful messages to promote and to benefit campaigns. Campaign advertisements on social media are a large aspect of campaign advertisements. But, all of this media power leads back to the concern of foreign interference. Russian interference in the 2016 election was largely promulgated by the usage of targeted social media in favor of President Trump. A similar effect could potentially be occurring in this election. President Trump and President Putin seemingly have a budding relationship that both leaders may want to maintain, potentially giving a motive for more Russian intervention in this election. As discussed in confidential congressional briefing, there is evidence of Russian interference in the upcoming election which could potentially have an effect on the election. Using social media communication again would be a powerful tool for sharing campaign support for President Trump, similarly to how many young anti-Trump Tiktokers attempted to hurt the campaign. It is unclear how Russia may interfere or to what extent, but it is definitely plausible for the nation to attempt to interfere again.

Is election interference possible? Definitely. Should we be concerned about foreign intervention in our election? To an extent, certainly. 

Most importantly, though, American voters must focus on getting their voices heard and making sure that their votes are in. Regardless of where you sit in the political aisle, the 2020 political election will be an event for the history books.