by Bob Barr
Editor’s note: We endeavor to bring you the top voices on current events representing a range of perspectives. Below is a column arguing that the possibility of Russian interference in the 2020 election is not a major concern. You can find a counterpoint here, where Charles Kolb argues that Russian interference is a real threat to American democracy.
Long before modern Russia meddled in our 2016 presidential election, Winston Churchill – one of the 20th century’s preeminent statesmen – described the difficulty of deciphering Russian policies as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Were Churchill with us today, he would know that the tools available to the Kremlin in this 21st century make that task far more difficult than in 1939 when he made his prescient declaration.
Most important in this regard is the reality that agencies within the Russian government, including its still very effective intelligence services, are able to employ social media platforms and internet search engines, to both meddle in the affairs of other countries, including the United States, and to camouflage those efforts from detection.
To evaluate what Russia has done, is doing, and will in the future attempt as part of its ongoing drive to interfere in electoral affairs of other countries, it is essential to understand one of the primary principles that drives Russia’s foreign policy – that forces outside its borders seek always to interfere in and weaken the country. Whether such a belief is founded on fact (which sometimes it has been) or fiction, it explains how its leaders – most notably the country’s current strongman, Vladimir Putin – conduct foreign affairs, overt as well as covert.
Throughout Putin’s 20-year tenure as leader of the post-Soviet Russian government, the Number One foreign bogeyman has been the United States. In the Russian leader’s mind, America always has sought to isolate and weaken Russian; most recently through tough economic sanctions following the Russian military annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
To Kremlin leaders, such punitive actions by the United States, whether taken directly or orchestrated indirectly through the United Nations or NATO, always have been at the core of American foreign policy toward Russia.
It therefore should come as no surprise that, dating back to the early days of the Cold War, Russia has meddled in U.S. elections. Many of the early tactics employed by Moscow to implement a strategy to ensure that American voters select leaders favorably disposed toward Russia, were ham-handed (such as overtly offering assistance to Democrat nominee Hubert Humphrey to defeat Richard Nixon in 1968). Their tactics have grown increasingly sophisticated, as seen in Russian-directed hacking of the DNC computers in 2016.
Despite there being no evidence that these efforts actually changed any votes, the strategy remains a pillar of Russian policy. In fact, the real goal of the strategy is not so much to actually change votes, as it is to sow discord and cause a degree of disruption that undermines the credibility of our political system. In the Kremlin’s perception, this diminishes America’s ability to harm Russia.
The question facing us in 2020 is not whether Russia will again meddle in our electoral processes (it will), but whether this particular threat is the most serious one facing our democratic institutions (it is not).
At the very top of any 2020 list of dangers to the integrity of our country’s elections is that posed by “Search Engine Manipulation Effect” (SEME).
SEME has been familiar to behavioralists for several years. It is the process of manipulating internet users’ preferences through deliberate but subtle – more precisely, surreptitious – algorithmic changes in search engine preference rankings. One way to achieve this effect is through Google’s “autocomplete function,” which directs users’ searches based on secret algorithms and user history.
The autocomplete function used by internet search engines completes a search term or phrase being entered by a user before the user deliberately completes it himself or herself. In this way, the search engine interposes its search preferences for those of the user in such manner that the user is not consciously aware of such manipulation. While the vast majority of instances in which a search engine engages autocomplete are those in which the user is simply searching for a factual term or phrase (e.g., “the Bill of Rights was ratified in what year?”), there is far more room for the search engine to subjectively direct a user when the query is more open-ended or includes a hot-button political term or name of a candidate.
One objective expert, Robert Epstein, calculates conservatively that in 2016 SEME directed 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton. From a global perspective, Epstein asserted in congressional testimony last summer that SEME likely “determin[ed] the outcomes of upwards of 25 percent of the national elections worldwide since at least 2015.”
This is the real threat. Search engine manipulation effect is demonstrable and verifiable, and it is being implemented not by some dark Russian oligarch, but by Google and other companies that control internet search engines.
Viewed thusly, it is fair to question whether, among those who most loudly cry “the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming,” lurk those who are most likely to gain from search engine manipulation of voting and who live within our own borders, not in the shadow of the Kremlin.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He now serves as President of the Law Enforcement Education Foundation based in Atlanta, Georgia.