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How Russia And Other Foreign Actors Sow Disinformation In Elections


What is Russia doing to interfere in the 2020 election? Well, that question came up in a briefing the intelligence community's election security czar gave House members last week. And multiple reports say that the meeting focused on Russia's supposed preference for President Trump as a candidate, a suggestion that so angered the president that he replaced his director of national intelligence.

And today we're learning from The Washington Post that U.S. officials told the Bernie Sanders campaign that Russia was trying to help him, too. We're going to talk through all of this with someone who studies how Russia interferes in elections around the world, Nina Jankowicz of the Wilson Center.

Welcome back.

NINA JANKOWICZ: Thanks for having me, Audie.

CORNISH: I want to start with the news from this afternoon, this reporting that U.S. officials told the Sanders campaign that Russians are trying to help their candidate. Are you surprised by this development?

JANKOWICZ: No, I'm not surprised at all. You know, in 2016, we saw Russia support Bernie and Trump equally, as well as other candidates on the fringes. Russia's MO is to pull apart the fabric of society from the sides and cause distrust and chaos in our electoral system.

CORNISH: Can you talk about what you mean by that? Is this about information? I know in Sanders' statement, he said some of the ugly stuff on the Internet attributed to our campaign may well not be coming from real supporters. What do you know about how Russia actually interferes?

JANKOWICZ: Well, Russia uses the fissures in our societies in order to kind of sow that distrust and chaos. So we're not actually talking about fake news. And we weren't talking about fake news in 2016, either. They're using real misgivings in society to get people at each other's throats. So yes, I'm sure some of those supporters - those comments that Bernie Sanders supporters are making online might be Russian trolls and bots, but there are also some real people making those comments, too. All of the best disinformation is rooted in a kernel of truth.

CORNISH: So this is not about the ballot box or voting machines or anything like that?

JANKOWICZ: No, absolutely not. This is information warfare. Sometimes that comes in the form of information laundering. Sometimes we are seeing, you know, campaigns coordinated in secret in closed Facebook groups. We're seeing advertisement spots, although the social media platforms have managed to crack down on that somewhat. But we're also seeing information laundering, where narratives are going through homegrown actors. And that's the sort of thing that the Sanders campaign is insinuating, and we're seeing that supporting the Trump campaign as well.

CORNISH: Based on your research, why would Russians want to help both President Trump and Senator Sanders?

JANKOWICZ: Well, you know, I think Putin and the Kremlin's goal here is to increase Russia's standing in the world. And when America's got its own problems, when we're looking inward, fighting with each other, worried about participation and discourse, our democratic discourse, it looks better to Russians. Russians can point to America and say, you know, that democratic project over there isn't going so well. Aren't you glad you've got this very staid authoritarian system here in Russia? And it increases Russia's standing in the world.

CORNISH: In our final moments, what do you make of the actions by the president upon hearing this news?

JANKOWICZ: Well, I worry about what message that sends to Russia. Certainly, we have not imposed costs on Russia or other bad actors that are seeking to influence our discourse ahead of the election. But not only that, it means that the good work that's being done by many civil servants in the federal government to fight against malign information tactics - it means that that is undermined as well. Without that recognition from the White House that disinformation is a threat, we cannot counter it in 2020.

CORNISH: That's Nina Jankowicz of the Wilson Center. Her book, "How To Lose The Information War," is out this summer.

Thank you for your time.

JANKOWICZ: Thanks for having me, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.