- Top Senate Democrats are concerned about Russian interference in 2022.
- A group of senators urged leading national security and intelligence officials to stay vigilant.
- The Ukraine war has provided an avenue for Russian disinformation to flourish in the US on the far right.
Leading Senate Democrats are sounding the alarm about Russian interference in the 2022 midterm elections.
A group of 17 Senate Democrats led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee and Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged some of the nation’s top military, intelligence, and national security officials to stay vigilant against interference in a new letter obtained by Insider.
“As the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to an increase in Russian disinformation and warnings of potential cyberattacks, we urge you to ensure that your agencies are prepared to quickly and effectively counter Russian influence campaigns targeting the 2022 elections,” the senators wrote in Thursday’s letter.
The letter also cites an Insider report from March on how Putin’s missteps in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has staunchly united the West and bolstered the NATO alliance while isolating Moscow economically and politically, could spur the Kremlin to redouble its efforts in undermining Western democracy through both cyberhacking and disinformation operations that are far cheaper to carry out than a land war on the scale of the Ukraine invasion.
“Manipulating social media is incredibly inexpensive compared to Javelins and ammunition,” Chris Rouland, the CEO of Phosphorus Cybersecurity, told Insider. “If anything, Russia would get more aggressive in its manipulation of social media because it’s almost free compared to a tank.”
Ex-NSA hacker David Kennedy, the CEO of TrustedSec, told Insider that “Putin and the intelligence agencies are going to look at how to cause as much damage as possible” through cyber operations.
He added that the US in particular is a “ripe target” for continued Russian interference efforts because of the major impact Russia had in influencing the 2016 election.
Russia’s successful history of meddling in the US “underscores the urgency” for 2022, senators say.
In 2016, Russia’s interference campaign included hacking into the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee to obtain damaging internal emails, attempting to compromise state voter registration databases, and using bot and troll farms to spread misinformation about the candidates and sow division and anger among the American electorate on social media.
Russia also interfered in the 2018 and 2020 elections, the US intelligence community found, by focusing less on cyber hacking and more on manipulating the information environment through social media, state media, online journals, and proxies.
“Russia’s history of interfering in our last three federal election cycles underscores the urgency of the current warnings,” the senators wrote in the letter.
As other experts noted to Insider, Russia’s primary goal in interfering in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections was not to boost President Donald Trump, but instead to sow fundamental distrust and undermine confidence in American democracy and institutions.
“Our democracy has been a shining beacon for the world and as we continue to assist Ukraine and our European allies, we must also be vigilant in guarding against threats to our own system of government,” Klobuchar and Reed wrote. “With primaries underway for the 2022 midterm election cycle and ongoing preparations for the November general election, it is vital that the federal government does everything in its power to ensure the integrity of our elections against foreign threats.”
As fighting rages on in Ukraine, Russia is waging an information war both at home and abroad.
Putin has gone to extraordinary lengths to control the flow of information in Russia amid the war in Ukraine, vying to keep Russians in the dark on what’s truly happening in Ukraine. Moscow has effectively eliminated the independent press in Russia while criminalizing opposition to the war. Those who speak out against Russia’s unprovoked war in Ukraine could face up to 15 years in prison, based on a law Putin signed making it illegal to spread “fake” news on the Russian military.
Meanwhile, Russian state news constantly peppers the Russian public with outlandish and false claims on the war. Pro-Kremlin propagandists have peddled a range of conspiratorial narratives to legitimize the invasion, falsely telling Russian audiences that Ukraine is a Nazi country and that World War III has begun. Russian state news has also claimed that apparent atrocities committed by Russian troops, including the Bucha massacre, were staged or fabricated by Ukrainian forces.
A feedback loop has emerged between Russian state media and right wing media in the US.
Prominent right wing figures in the US, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson, have echoed Russia’s propaganda and disinformation on Ukraine. Russian state TV has recycled and applauded Carlson’s commentary, which reaches millions of Americans — he hosts the most-watched show on cable news in the US.
As Russia gathered tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine’s border in the lead-up to the invasion in late 2021, Carlson parroted Moscow by blaming NATO for Putin’s aggression toward Kyiv. Carlson said NATO only existed to “torment” Putin, claiming that the authoritarian leader “just wants to keep his western borders secure.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was ultimately an unprovoked assault on a sovereign nation, which is why much of the world has rallied behind Kyiv and against Moscow.
After the invasion, Carlson also pushed a discredited Russian conspiracy theory that the US was funding bio-weapons development at labs in Ukraine. The false bio-labs story also found an audience on far right social media channels in the US, among other platforms and forums, highlighting the myriad ways disinformation can spread in today’s world.
“People are asking if the far right in the US is influencing Russia or if Russia is influencing the far right, but the truth is they are influencing each other,” Thomas Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and expert on Russian disinformation, told the New York Times in March, adding, “They are pushing the same narratives.”
There are no signs that the Ukraine war will end at any point in the near future. As the conflict continues and the economic consequences of it are felt more acutely by Americans, the circumstances could provide an ideal avenue for the proliferation of Russian disinformation in the US — sowing further discord across the country amid a period of historic political divisions.