Butterfly Effect: Guess Who All Have Been Hacking America's Elections? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: Guess Who All Have Been Hacking America's Elections?

Butterfly Effect: Guess Who All Have Been Hacking America's Elections?

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

At least 10 nations tried to influence the 2020 election, it now appears. Has American democracy become a playground for global interests?

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

If you believe Republicans in Texas, Florida and elsewhere, easy access to voting corrupts America’s electoral process. Look across the aisle, and Democrats insist that GOP bills formally aimed at weeding out election fraud are actually racist attempts to stop Black and brown Americans — who predominantly lean blue — from voting.

Yet, as lawmakers trade barbs and walk out of legislatures, another very real threat to the foundations of American democracy is expanding in scale but going largely unnoticed in the divisive political debates of these times.

In an explosive revelation last week, The New York Times reported that federal prosecutors are investigating the role of former and, more worryingly, current Ukrainian officials in peddling misinformation to former President Donald Trump’s confidant Rudy Giuliani, with the aim of influencing the 2020 election. We don’t know the details of that misinformation yet, nor how Giuliani might have attempted to use it.

But the alleged involvement of Ukrainian officials is a pointer to a deeper rot in the security of the world’s most important election — that of the leader of the United States. It’s no secret that Russia tried to swing the 2016 election for Trump. And research by Dov Levin, assistant professor of international relations at the University of Hong Kong and a leading expert on election interference, found that Russian influence campaigns helped Trump win Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, the three states that carried him over the line. Yet it’s now clear that four years later, in 2020, Moscow wasn’t alone.

A laundry list of nations attempted — some quietly, others publicly — to shape American opinion ahead of the presidential election last November in a bid to get their preferred candidate elected. They included rivals and friends alike. And as the reports on Ukraine show, American officials are still discovering previously unknown influence operations.

Consider this.

Intelligence agencies had publicly warned of Russian, Chinese and Iranian influence campaigns ahead of the election. But as OZY reported in November, a Brazilian online campaign amplified pro-Trump conspiracy theories over the alleged “theft” of the election in the heated days that followed the Nov. 3 vote. Using hashtags such as #BidenWasNotElected, more than 1,500 Twitter bots supportive of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tried to undermine the credibility of the U.S. election. Bolsonaro, a fellow populist, was one of Trump’s closest international allies and refused to recognize Biden’s win for weeks after the vote. Experts who analyzed the Twitter campaign believe it was part of an initiative run by Bolsonaro’s son that also targeted the Brazilian leader’s domestic opponents.

Meanwhile, at least three right-wing lawmakers in Colombia, also ruled by a right-wing government, were found to be acting as Trump surrogates in Florida, a key swing state with a significant Colombian American population. In October, the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá had to warn them to steer clear of the U.S. election.

Across the Pacific and Indian oceans, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also broke with a decades-old tradition. Indian leaders usually do not indicate their preferred candidate in foreign elections. But in the year leading up to the 2020 vote, Modi twice held giant public rallies with Trump — one in Ahmedabad, India, and the other in Houston — with a thinly veiled message to Indian American voters to choose the then U.S. president at the ballot box. America’s Indian diaspora is its richest ethnic group, with influence greater than their numbers — 4 million — would suggest.

And last August, William Evanina, the director of the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center, warned that North Korea, Cuba and Saudi Arabia were also “getting in the mix because they think [influence campaigns] work.” Saudi Arabia’s leadership, especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had forged a close relationship with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. By contrast, candidate Biden had described Riyadh as a “pariah” state in the context of its human rights record, including the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

If you’ve lost count by now, let me sum it up for you: Influence campaigns linked to the governments of at least 10 countries targeted the 2020 election, if Ukraine is included.

To be sure, countries have tried to interfere in U.S. elections before — and Washington has repeatedly done the same in other countries. But those efforts are usually covert and limited and have deniability built in. The fact that at least nine other nations are believed to have attempted to follow Russia’s 2016 lead in 2020 should be worrying for America. And many of these attempts, such as Brazil’s and India’s, were largely public. 

It’s one thing for U.S. intelligence officials to worry about sophisticated adversaries like Russia and China. But what about supposed “friends and allies” like India, Saudi Arabia and Colombia? Unless the U.S. makes it crystal clear to them that a repeat of 2020 would never be acceptable and would draw penalties, 2024 could see still more nations trying to sway American voters, without inhibition.

The credibility of America’s democracy has already taken a beating globally in recent years, and the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol only underscored that crisis. But the fix isn’t to curtail voting rights.

Stopping voters from voting hurts democracy. Stopping foreign nations from influencing elections strengthens it.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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