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Who needs Russia? Loudest attacks on U.S. vote are from Trump

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WASHINGTON — Rus­sia didn’t have to lift a fin­ger.

In the weeks before the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, fed­er­al author­i­ties warned that Rus­sia or oth­er for­eign coun­tries might spread false infor­ma­tion about the results to dis­cred­it the legit­i­ma­cy of the out­come.

Turns out, the loud­est mega­phone for that mes­sage belonged not to Rus­sia but to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who has trum­pet­ed a bliz­zard of thor­ough­ly debunked claims to pro­claim that he, not Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden, was the right­ful win­ner.

The result­ing chaos is con­sis­tent with long­stand­ing Russ­ian inter­ests to sow dis­cord in the Unit­ed States and to chip away at the country’s demo­c­ra­t­ic foun­da­tions and stand­ing on the world stage. If the 2016 elec­tion raised con­cerns about for­eign inter­fer­ence in U.S. pol­i­tics, the 2020 con­test shows how Amer­i­cans them­selves, and their lead­ers, can be a pow­er­ful source of dis­in­for­ma­tion with­out oth­er gov­ern­ments even need­ing to do the work.

“For quite a while at this point, the Krem­lin has been able to essen­tial­ly just use and ampli­fy the con­tent, the false and mis­lead­ing and sen­sa­tion­al polit­i­cal­ly divi­sive con­tent gen­er­at­ed by polit­i­cal offi­cials and Amer­i­can them­selves” rather than cre­ate their own nar­ra­tives and con­tent, said Cindy Otis, vice pres­i­dent for analy­sis at the Alethea Group, which tracks dis­in­for­ma­tion.

U.S. offi­cials had been on high alert for for­eign inter­fer­ence head­ing into Nov. 3, espe­cial­ly after a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion four years ear­li­er in which Russ­ian intel­li­gence offi­cers hacked Demo­c­ra­t­ic emails and Russ­ian troll farms used social media to sway pub­lic opin­ion.

Pub­lic ser­vice announce­ments from the FBI and the Depart­ment of Home­land Security’s cyber­se­cu­ri­ty arm warned of the ways Rus­sia or oth­er coun­tries could inter­fere again, includ­ing by cre­at­ing or alter­ing web­sites after the elec­tion to spread false infor­ma­tion about the results “in an attempt to dis­cred­it the elec­toral process and under­mine con­fi­dence in U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions.”

Yet many of the false claims about vot­ing, elec­tions and the can­di­dates in the months and weeks ahead of the elec­tion — and in the days since — orig­i­nat­ed not from for­eign actors eager to desta­bi­lize the U.S. but from domes­tic groups and Trump him­self.

“Almost all of this is domes­tic,” said Alex Sta­mos, the direc­tor of the Stan­ford Inter­net Obser­va­to­ry and a mem­ber of the Elec­tion Integri­ty Part­ner­ship, a group of lead­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion experts who stud­ied online mis­in­for­ma­tion relat­ing to the 2020 elec­tion.

Sta­mos said that while there were some small indi­ca­tions of for­eign inter­fer­ence on social media, it amount­ed to “noth­ing that has been all that inter­est­ing” com­pared with the flood of claims shared by Amer­i­cans them­selves.

Though Russ­ian hack­ers had tar­get­ed state and local net­works in the months before the elec­tion, Elec­tion Day came and went with­out the feared attacks on vot­ing infra­struc­ture and fed­er­al offi­cials. Oth­er experts have said there is no evi­dence vot­ing sys­tems were com­pro­mised or any votes were lost or changed.

That’s not to say Rus­sia was entire­ly silent dur­ing the elec­tion, or in the imme­di­ate after­math. Eng­lish-lan­guage web­sites the U.S. gov­ern­ment has linked to Rus­sia have ampli­fied sto­ries sug­gest­ing vot­ing prob­lems or fraud.

Intel­li­gence offi­cials warned in August that Rus­sia was engaged in a con­cert­ed effort to dis­par­age Demo­c­rat Joe Biden, now the pres­i­dent-elect, and sin­gled out a Ukrain­ian par­lia­men­tar­i­an who has met on mul­ti­ple occa­sions with Trump’s per­son­al lawyer, Rudy Giu­liani.

Giu­liani has been cen­tral to Trump’s elec­tion attacks, argu­ing a Penn­syl­va­nia court case on Wednes­day and appear­ing at a con­fer­ence the next day that was rife with debunked claims, includ­ing a fic­ti­tious sto­ry that a serv­er host­ing evi­dence of vot­ing irreg­u­lar­i­ties was in Ger­many.

Trump on Fri­day retweet­ed a post that crit­i­cized the news media for not more aggres­sive­ly cov­er­ing the news con­fer­ence. More broad­ly, he has helped dri­ve the spread of inac­cu­rate infor­ma­tion through a dis­in­for­ma­tion machine that relies on social media, con­ser­v­a­tive radio and tele­vi­sion out­lets and the ampli­fi­ca­tion pow­er of his mil­lions of fol­low­ers.

Zig­nal Labs, a San Fran­cis­co media intel­li­gence firm, iden­ti­fied and tracked mil­lions of social media posts about vot­ing by mail in the months before the elec­tion and found huge spikes imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing sev­er­al of Trump’s tweets.

One exam­ple: On July 30, Trump tweet­ed mis­in­for­ma­tion about mail bal­lots three sep­a­rate times, includ­ing call­ing the process inac­cu­rate and fraud­u­lent, stat­ing with­out evi­dence that mail bal­lots would be an “easy way” for for­eign adver­saries to inter­fere and repeat­ing a false dis­tinc­tion that absen­tee bal­lots are some­how more secure than mail bal­lots, when both are treat­ed the same.

Togeth­er, those three tweets were repost­ed by oth­er users more than 100,000 times and liked more than 430,000 times — lead­ing the spread of mail bal­lot mis­in­for­ma­tion that day and help­ing Trump dom­i­nate the online dis­cus­sion the entire week, accord­ing to Zignal’s analy­sis.

Many of the false claims seen on Elec­tion Day orig­i­nat­ed with Amer­i­can vot­ers them­selves, whose posts about base­less alle­ga­tions of vot­er fraud were then repost­ed to mil­lions more peo­ple by Trump allies. That ampli­fi­ca­tion allows iso­lat­ed or mis­lead­ing claims to spread more wide­ly.

“You’re not talk­ing about grass­roots activ­i­ty so much any­more,” Sta­mos said. “You’re talk­ing about top-down activ­i­ty that is facil­i­tat­ed by the abil­i­ty of these folks to cre­ate these audi­ences.”

Researchers at Har­vard University’s Berk­man Klein Cen­ter for Inter­net & Soci­ety ana­lyzed social media posts and news sto­ries about vot­er fraud and deter­mined that “Fox News and Don­ald Trump’s own cam­paign were far more influ­en­tial in spread­ing false beliefs than Russ­ian trolls or Face­book click­bait artists.”

One of the researchers, Har­vard Law School pro­fes­sor Yochai Ben­kler, said that when his team looked at sud­den increas­es in online chat­ter about vot­er fraud, they almost always fol­lowed a com­ment from Trump or top allies.

Justin Levitt, an elec­tion law expert at Loy­ola Law School, said that, unlike four years ago, “now we don’t need a for­eign mil­i­tary unit to attack us. We have a chief exec­u­tive doing exact­ly that” and work­ing to spread dis­in­for­ma­tion.

“It’s even more dan­ger­ous this time,” he added, “than it was in 2016.”

Klep­per report­ed from Prov­i­dence, Rhode Island. Asso­ci­at­ed Press writer Colleen Long in Wash­ing­ton con­tributed to this report.

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