The news came in mid-October, less than one month before the election: Registered Democratic voters received emails that were made to look like they came from the white nationalist group Proud Boys and demanded that the recipients vote for Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential election. A couple of weeks prior, Trump had refused to denounce the Proud Boys in the first presidential debate, telling them to "stand back and stand by." The emails were likely an effort to make the Trump campaign look bad for associating with a group that attempted to intimidate voters.
In a hastily called press briefing shortly after the news about the emails broke, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray announced that Iran was to blame for the email campaign.
"We are not going to tolerate foreign interference in our elections or any criminal activity that threatens the sanctity of your vote or undermines public confidence in the outcome of the election," Wray said.
The concern that foreign powers such as Iran, Russia and China could meddle in the US presidential elections appears justified. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Russian hackers spread misinformation on social media via fake profiles and released stolen emails and files from Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic National Committee with the goal of harming her campaign and increasing Trump's chances of winning the presidency.
The fake "Proud Boys" email, allegedly sent out by Iranian hackers, shows that other countries are apparently trying to meddle in the 2020 US presidential elections again. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has released a number of statements on foreign election interference.
"We see our adversaries seeking to compromise the private communications of US political campaigns, candidates and other political targets," a July statement from Ratcliffe's office stated. "In addition, foreign nations continue to use influence measures in social and traditional media in an effort to sway US voters' preferences and perspectives, to shift US policies, to increase discord and to undermine confidence in our democratic process… Foreign efforts to influence or interfere with our elections are a direct threat to the fabric of our democracy."
You can't unsee misinformation
Influencing people before they head to the polls is just as bad, if not worse, than attempts to hack actual election procedures, like messing with voting machines or the counting process, according to Theresa Payton, CEO of cyber-security firm Fort Alice Solutions and former White House Chief Information Officer under George W. Bush. Even if fake news stories are revealed as such, who is to say that the correction reaches potential voters? They might only remember the initial, often more salacious story.
"How do you tell people to unsee something?" Payton told DW. "How many of the tens of millions of voters who have already voted were influenced by misinformation? This is the hacking of our hearts and minds and it's almost worse."
Payton's book about election meddling, "Manipulated," was published in April 2020. She found that one question that's not easy to answer is whether foreign hackers try to influence US elections independently or on orders from their governments.
"[Political] leaders might create the mission, then create independent cells to carry it out and then step away," she said. "This way they have plausible deniability."
Viktoria Zhuravleva also points to the theory that it was independent Russian hackers without government ties who interfered in the 2016 US elections. The head of the Center for North American Studies at the Russian University for the Humanities in Moscow does not believe that the Kremlin has meddled in the 2016 US presidential election or that it's trying to do so in the 2020 election.
"Russia is a very convenient topic that's frequently used in domestic battles in the US," Zhuravleva told DW. "The story of 'Russian interference' is very much needed for the Democrats. There's proof for [the involvement of] people who were Russian, but not for officials linked to the Russian government."
Dmitry Suslov from the Higher School of Economics, a renowned university in Moscow, says that narrative is widespread in Russia. It also came up in 2018 when the "Internet Research Agency" (IRA), a Russian troll farm, was indicted on charges of trying to interfere "with U.S. elections and political processes," according to the US Justice Department. The alleged financier of the IRA, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The IRA posted misleading stories on Facebook and other social networks.
"The Russian government said that even if this was happening, it had nothing to do with them," Suslov told DW. "They say those [people involved in the IRA] are individual patriots, not a division of Russian intelligence. I don't know whether that's true — I'm not a Russian field agent."
Foreign influence 'undermines faith in democracy'
Experts in the US say that Russia's government was very much involved in the 2016 election interference, and that it poses a threat again this year.
"The social media posts [trying to influence US voters] and the IRA leadership had a clear Kremlin connection," said Bret Schafer from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan initiative that develops strategies to deter authoritarian efforts from interfering in democratic institutions.
Asked about which foreign power poses the greatest risk when it comes to influencing the results of the presidential election, Schafer told DW that it was "Russia, without question."
While Moscow would prefer a Trump win, since they perceive him as the more-Russia friendly candidate, and Tehran would prefer a President Biden to ease the strict sanctions Trump has imposed on Iran, "no one benefits" when foreign powers attempt to interfere in US elections, Schafer stressed.
"It undermines everyone's faith in democracy."
Schafer is confident that a foreign campaign to influence US voters' opinions through misleading social media posts or faked emails could never sway huge swaths of voters.
"But in the US you don't need [to sway] hundreds of thousands of voters," the disinformation expert said, referring to the set-up of the electoral college. "You just need a couple of thousand votes in swing states."
Despite that lower threshold, Schafer sees the real danger of manipulation attempts in the effects they will have on the time after the election.
"The big concern is what they can do to our faith in the results," he said. The US and its citizens "rely on trust in the results to have a nonviolent democracy. If [foreign manipulators] can convince people after the fact that the results might not be real, that is not a given anymore."
A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Donald Trump's words toward the Proud Boys in the debate as being "stand down and stand by." This has now been corrected. The department apologizes for the error.