The United States needs to brace itself for an intensive barrage of Russian and Chinese disinformation as the coronavirus pandemic crisis increasingly blends with the presidential election campaign. Both Moscow and Beijing will seek to capitalize on America’s vulnerabilities with the aim of exacerbating domestic conflicts and reducing the U.S. global presence.
Neither Russia nor China have the military means to effectively challenge the U.S. in any contested region, and both have opted to fight in the shadows and learn from each other’s methodology. And because both countries now face their own pandemic-induced economic slumps, they will be more inclined to steer attention toward their main geopolitical rival.
Kremlin disinformation offensives, increasingly mimicked by Beijing, have two strategic goals: To paralyze American democracy and incapacitate national decisions that challenge its global aspirations. Polarization between Republicans and Democrats is so pronounced that foreign actors have space to infiltrate disinformation whether to help or discredit either presidential candidate. Partisan rifts are also reflected in a deeply divided electorate, which is susceptible to a range of conspiracy theories.
For Moscow, in an ideal world, Trump would be re-elected with a freer hand to disregard his national security team by forging a partnership with PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinHillicon Valley — Facebook 'too late' curbing climate falsities France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal Apple, Google remove Navalny app as Russian elections begin MORE, lifting economic sanctions, sacrificing Europe’s east to Russia’s influence, and withdrawing American forces from Europe. China may be less supportive of a Trump presidency if the upshot is an intensified trade war and a U.S. campaign to discredit Beijing. But this will not signify support for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE, who is likely to focus on China’s dismal human rights record. Instead, Beijing’s objective will be to deepen public distrust in the election process and denigrate American leadership.
The U.S. will be bombarded with at least three disinformation cluster bombs, some geared toward the electorate and others toward foreign audiences. They will focus on America’s alleged weaknesses; its supposedly fake democracy; and its irreconcilable domestic divisions. It is worth remembering that disinformation does not always operate with total falsehoods, but often with half-truths or suppositions that can be twisted to serve a variety of political objectives.
For international audiences, Moscow and Beijing will push the line of America’s growing weakness, as evident in its inadequate reactions to the pandemic. They can bolster arguments that the U.S. is a fading power, that national sovereignty has prevailed over American globalization, and that “liberal democracies” are on the decline. All states should therefore curtail their alliances with the U.S. and instead look toward Moscow and Beijing as models and leaders. This theme will also have a domestic component by tapping into brewing sentiments among the American public that Washington should scale-back its global involvement and international alliances.
A second major theme to discredit American democracy will depict the U.S. as a failing and fraudulent democracy. It will highlight supposed election rigging, whether due to postal balloting, illicit campaign financing, alleged disenfranchisement of minorities, media bias or whatever exploitable controversies emerge during the election campaign. It can also include more active measures by hacking and releasing sensitive emails or some other texts at opportune moments, as witnessed during the 2016 campaign. The purpose will be to undermine the legitimacy of the next administration.
A third theme that may have wide domestic resonance will fixate on allegedly irreconcilable divisions in American society, whether based on class, wealth, ethnicity, color, religion, region or sexual identity. Facebook and Twitter have already attempted to stymie new Russian influence campaigns that target African-American voters and seek to inflame race relations. However, the pandemic provides even more fertile ground for Kremlin proxies, media outlets and hired trolls to sow social discord.
Numerous virus-related themes can be exploited, including disputes between states and the federal government, conspiracy theories about virus origins and cures, the uneven impact of the economic recession and the search for internal or external scapegoats. It will prey on public gullibility at a time of danger and uncertainty. For instance, claims that an eventual vaccine will be used for mandatory inoculation to inject microchips for monitoring people’s behavior can stoke fear, anger and anti-government opposition. It will also portray the U.S. administration as repressive and unjust, with zero credibility in promoting human rights abroad.
In the past, China's online disinformation campaigns have been less sophisticated than Russia’s, particularly on Western digital social networks. For the most part, it has simply amplified disinformation from Kremlin-connected outlets. But with growing technological capabilities and to counter Washington’s escalating campaign against China’s expansionism, Beijing may try to surpass Moscow’s disinformation as the elections approach.
The U.S. response should not imitate Russian and Chinese methods. On the contrary, a range of public and private organizations need to engage in a sustained global information offensive that disseminates facts about the domestic failures and international ambitions of its two main adversaries.
Janusz Bugajski is a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C. His recent book, co-authored with Margarita Assenova, is entitled “Eurasian Disunion: Russia’s Vulnerable Flanks,” Jamestown Foundation, Washington D.C.