US Elections Untangled – EP 3: Could foreign interference tip the election? (with Mikael Wigell)

2 asiantuntijaa


Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?

FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.

The series is hosted by Visiting Research Fellow Maria Annala from The Center on US Politics and Power (CUSPP) at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs who is an expert in present day American politics. Joining her in the studio will be a wide array of international relations experts from FIIA. This podcast was made possible in part through support provided by the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.


Episode 3 – Could foreign interference tip the election? – With Global Security Programme Director Mikael Wigell

Did Russian election meddling tip the 2016 election? Could Russia, China or Iran succeed in influencing the outcome in 2020?

“Undermining the reputation of Hillary Clinton through disinformation and cyber-oriented attacks against the Clinton campaign might have actually tipped the election in favor of Donald Trump,” says Global Security Programme Director Mikael Wigell from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Wigell has seen clear evidence of several foreign powers trying to meddle in the 2020 elections.

“I think Western democracy has never really been under these sorts of threats before.”

You can also listen to the series on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Listen to the previous episodes here.

Read the text version of the episode

Intro starts. 

The host Maria Annala: Welcome to US Elections Untangled – a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs 

Audio recording of Donald Trump: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it is going to be only America first, America first. 

Audio recording of Joe Biden: Donald Trump’s brand of America first has too often led to America alone. 

Maria Annala: Hi everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and I’m going to be your host throughout this podcast series. 

Maria Annala: In today’s episode, we’ll take a look at the different ways foreign countries can try to sabotage a democratic society and talk about the risks of outside interference in the American elections this year. Our Guest today is Global Security program director Mikael Wigell from The Finnish Institute of International Affairs.  

Intro ends. 

Annala: Hi Mikael, thanks for being here.  

The guest, Global Security Programme Director Mikael Wigell: Thanks a lot. 

Annala: So one of your areas of expertise is hybrid interference. Could you tell us a little bit about what that is? 

Wigell: Hybrid interference is about interfering in another state’s internal affairs, and that’s a no-no usually in diplomacy, right? And see more and more that external powers, other states, are trying to go beyond the state and interfere in the society of another state by different means. Hybrid refers to this combination of different means where you use perhaps economic means, disinformation means, political means – you tailor them to target another state’s society, interfering that society, and manipulate the kind of the political discussion, the political life, and debate in that country through this hybrid means.  

Annala: And what kind of states and countries are doing this?  

Wigell: We see a lot of China and Russia, Iran and Turkey; we talk about authoritarian states that target Western democracies in particular by these different means because at bottom, it’s about authoritarian states being afraid of democracy in a way. Because they try to keep up their authoritarian systems and they see a threat from democracy so they try to undermine democracy and destroy the legitimacy of democracy – to make them seem ungovernable, weak, internally incohesive… They try to accelerate the political polarization of Western democracy. And through that, kind of undermine the legitimacy of democracy’s global norm.  

Annala: So that their own citizens wouldn’t aspire to democracy for example… That their own citizens would think that democracy is a bad system, it’s a bad system, we don’t want one. 

Wigell: Exactly, they try to set an example of democracy being a very weak system, not anything to be aspired to. Because of course in China Xi Jinping, the president of the Communist party or Mr. Putin in Russia, they fear that their own citizens will start to demand democracy and they try to undermine that and… They saw the Orange Revolution for instance in Ukraine and in some of the other Central Asian Republics – or the Arab Spring. They fear those sorts of democracy movements because that would of course threaten their own regime, even their own power. 

Annala: Could you give us some recent examples of hybrid interference? 

Wigell: Of course the US 2016 elections is a very prominent example of Russian hybrid interference where it could actually be that it tipped the election – that with out that interference without that external interference, Donald Trump wouldn’t have been elected. It was a very, very close election. And by undermining the reputation of Hillary Clinton through disinformation, in particular, and cyber-oriented attacks against the Clinton campaign; that might have actually tipped the election in favor of Donald Trump. There are of course many other examples as well: We’ve seen the yellow vest protests in France that have been infiltrated by external agents, prominently Russians. And by disinformation… Trying to incite those protests, trying to accelerate violence in those protests, which then would lead to more polarization in France, and ungovernable situation for president Macron; to make him look weak. And we have the Brexit campaign. There is strong evidence of it being infiltrated from outside as well – that of course is also this source of very prominent political pressure points that can be used very easily to incite these divisions, splittings in society. And we have a lot of different elections around the world that have been manipulated from abroad. But this of course goes on between elections as well. We should remember that this sort of influencing, interference by economic means, by political means; for instance trying to stir up ethnic divisions, racial divisions and conflict between ethnic groups… This goes on between elections very much. In Europe, we see a lot of it. We might see a bit of it now in the US as well with the George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, which are such things that can be quite easily manipulated from abroad. 

Annala: You mentioned the 2016 elections in the US and they are definitely a very good example of foreign election interference and hybrid interference. How were hybrid interference tactics used in that particular case? 

Wigell: We talk especially about disinformation and cyber, so hacking the Clinton campaign, by stealing emails that looked quite bad and then leaking these emails through the Wikipedia site. 

Annala: You said Wikipedia, but I guess you meant Wikileaks, right? 

Wigell: Exactly, I meant Wikileaks, of course, yes. But there was also a lot of usage of social media where… Through trolls and bots for instance you flooded social media space in the US with this very incendiary messages, polarizing messages and fake messages; A lot of fake stories, conspiracy theories so that the elections became very divided. It accelerated the political polarization in the campaigning and undermined very much especially Democrats but the democratic system as such, the electoral system as such in the US. Because we should remember that even though the big prize for the Russians was of course to get Donald Trump elected – and that has paid off hugely – we can come back that. But the even bigger price is to undermine democracy as a system as we talked before. So making it look like people don’t trust these elections anymore or don’t trust their fellow-citizens, that they would follow the same rules; that will undermine democratic governance as such. So the Russians used a lot of, especially disinformation and cyber-enabled disinformation in those elections. Now we also see political parties and politicians being funded from abroad as well. Some candidates are being funded that are particularly radical in their opinions or stand for very radical positions. That’s another way of course to incite this polarization divisions and use the social cleavages in democratic society; fund particularly radical social movements and political parties. 

Annala: It’s very hard to know just how effective the Russian interference was because this polarization, it exists without foreign interference. And as you explained the foreign power takes advantage of those existing dividing lines and the existing polarization. I know some American scholars argue that Russian interference wasn’t decisive in the 2016 election because the Americans were doing such a great job at becoming more and more polarized and becoming more and more divided by themselves that they would have done it on their own even without help from Russia. But it’s a very, very subtle way of influencing because;  how can you tell what was caused by Russian interference and what was organic? 

Wigell: I think this is a very good point, that it is subtle interference as well. Because it is about covertly interfering with another society so that you can’t easily pick out who did what, right? And that’s part of the reason why it’s so effective as well. That you can’t really point out who is, and what is being done. So it creates a lot of ambiguity and that’s part of the strategy so to speak; to create that ambiguity because then we start to distrust certain institutions; what actually happened, is it really worth going to cost your vote, if it functions like this. So in the end, whether the Russian interference actually tip the election or not is not actually the big point. The big point is that you don’t know; they might have tipped it and they might not. And that already creates less of a trust in the system as such, and Donald Trump can say ‘no there was no interference we don’t need to even defend ourselves against this.’ He can use that very much. So if something now goes against him, he can also point out that there’s this interference… He can use that to his end as well and that’s just accelerates these problems that we are now seeing the Western democracies, right? So it’s not really about whether… how effective in the end, it’s really hard to tell, how effective it is, but even then it’s kind of a slippery slope, or a spiral really, actually; that first undermines trust and when trust is undermined in democracy, democracy is undermined and when democracy undermined, less trust, so we have a spiral effect going on now that’s really worrying. 

Annala: Yes and we can see that in polls. Americans have alarmingly little trust in these elections; that the 2020 elections will be fair and open, and that people’s voice will be heard, the voters will, will be heard. And it’s not just about Russia but it definitely has something to do with why the trust is so low. 

Annala: All in all, it seems to me that the present-day US is very vulnerable to election interference and to this hybrid interference. It takes advantage of existing polarization in the US. The US was already without foreign help… They were very, very… The Americans were very polarized, very divided. Even this whole question of whether Russia interfered and if it’s made a difference; that has become a partisan question and the political parties haven’t been able to agree on whether they should be taking definite steps to protect future elections from similar interference, and that alone undermines people’s trust. The voters who prefer the Democratic party, they would have liked to see more affirmative steps to try and protect these elections and future elections from interference, whereas Trump supporters would like to believe that nothing happened and they don’t want to see any steps taken. And it doesn’t matter which side wins, the other side is going to feel that something went wrong and the system failed them. So it’s definitely a very vulnerable situation. 

Wigell: I think Western democracy, liberal democracy is by nature quite vulnerable to this sorts of hybrid interference and external interference in this way because of two reasons basically. The first is that Western democracy is by nature an open system, so we don’t police our own societies, we don’t surveillance our own societies, it’s not meant to be we have a rule of law. Civil society should be independent and autonomous. It’s very difficult to monitor whether somebody is trying to penetrate that society and sow deep divisions. Our economies are open; it is easy to penetrate our economies by investments, by different trade arrangements, by all sorts of loan arrangements and swapping and so on and forth. And the second reason is that… and our free media environment is open as well; you can come into our immediate environment, and it’s not like in China where they have a wall built around their media environment. Here it’s open, so it’s easy to come into these societies and sow these divisions. The second reason is – and it has to do with the nature of democracy again – is that we naturally have these societal cleavages in our societies. Our democracies kind of builts on those social cleveages; that there are these different interests competing of power. That’s democratic politics. But at the same time it makes us pretty vulnerable. These social cleavages can then be manipulated and it can be accelerated to some degree and built on those previous societal cleavage that we have. So polarization is by nature already there in our societies but now these hybrid actors are trying of course to accelerate and strengthen  those cleavages; that polarization. It’s not that they invented it; it’s there but they make use of it. 

Annala: What kind of interference do you think the Americans will see this year in their elections? 

Wigell: I think we’ve seen a lot of interference going on all the time actually in the US – it hasn’t stopped at any time. It’s been going on all the way since the US 2016 elections actually. And because Trump doesn’t want actually to very much to defend against it because you know the Russian interference actually helps him very much. So he hasn’t taken many steps to mend any of these openings for interference, and also the fact that the partisan climate in the US politics is so polarized that they can’t actually agree on anything. It makes it very difficult to defend against this interference. So it it has been going on; we have seen a lot of disinformation and a lot of economic means of interference going on since the elections. Now we’ve already – when it comes to these elections now – we’ve seen some messages of infiltration of the presidential campaigns already. Biden’s campaign –  the Chinese have apparently been trying to hack it. Iranians have tried to hack the Trump campaign. So that’s going on to some degree already. I think that disinformation aspect will be stepped up all the way towards the elections. Disinformation will not only target Biden and try to undermine him, it will target the democratic system as well to try to show the elections as being biased; that there is a lot of uncertainty about who actually won, vote casted; vote registration, did it go in a fair manner. There will be a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity created around this whole electoral process; that I think we will see stepped up as we go towards the elections. 

Annala: And I think the pandemic offers ample opportunities to confuse matters even more because the virus has created so much actual uncertainty. Spreading misinformation about how likely someone is to catch corona virus by voting. Or even… because there will be actual changes because of the virus; if somebody starts spreading misinformation or disinformation about polling locations or polling hours or the practicalities of voting… 

Wigell: And then of course we have the George Floyd… The Black Lives Matter protests now going on in the US. That’s of course a golden opportunity to exploit by an external power trying to incite more violence into those protests, trying to fabricate stories what goes around those protests; stir up even more racial divisions and tension in the in the United States now – it’s a golden opportunity, these protests, and we already see a lot of that disinformation going on there. We actually saw it before the protests already. We have quite firm evidence of Russia creating false Black Lives Matter accounts on Facebook we have a false personal Facebook with a lot of followers on Twitter and Facebook – almost a hundred thousand followers – turned out to be a fake, Russian-created person who tried to incite more of this kind of tension in the debate around this racial divisions in the US. So we have that going on, and it now it’s a golden opportunity to exploit this. We have seen a lot of that sort of manipulation going on in protest movements around the world and Europe. 

Annala: Could that Russian interference actually have something to do with the fact that these protests are fierce and so widespread? Because we’ve had videos of brutal killings of black men by police before; every year it seems there’s a couple of those and this time these protests seem so much more widespread and so much more agitated. 

Wigell: We know from before that Russia, and also China in Taiwan for instance, have been using and hiring thugs and street criminals to infiltrate protest movements and incite more violence. So it’s not really… it’s not unheard of to use these sort of tactics by any means. 

Annala: Do you think hybrid interference might actually be decisive? Do you think it might affect the 2020 election results?  

Wigell: Well, it’s hard to tell of course. I’m sure it will be a close election and close election might actually be tipped as a consequence of this sort of external interference. US elections are often very close. Small communities even might have decisive effect. So it might tip. But that’s only the presidential elections; you have the local elections as well going on in the United States at the same time. And these are even more easy to kind of try to manipulate because the defenses there are even less. You have the campaign finance law in the US that allows for a lot of external funding of candidates. So we see that also, you know, a lot of funding going to certain candidates that might be well exposed to these external powers making use of that external funding. And this is a problem in the US, a big problem in the US system, the campaign finance laws. And a lot of other things going on already. So yes it might be the decisive factor. Whether it decides the actual presidential elections…well it’s hard to tell. It might decide a lot of other… gubernatorial elections or the elections for the house and so forth. It might also – when we go forward – be… Even bigger problem is to what extent it undermines the trust for the electoral system as we talked before. I mean this is the big question, because that will then undermined trust for democracy as such. US is the big price here; it’s the most illustrious democracy around the world and the one that is supposed to kind of lead the democratic world. So if you can sow the seeds of doubt that the US democratic system doesn’t function as a democratic system or that its democratic governance looks weak, that will undermine the global democracy as a norm. 

Annala: Why do you think hybrid interference has become so common these days? I don’t remember people talking about it like ten years ago but now it seems to be this big thing.  

Wigell: I think it’s just a very effective means of conducting power politics these days. And it’s an effective means for a couple of reasons: First of all because of technology. I mean the  social media platforms for instance enable Russia to reach hundreds of millions of Americans very easily. That was such the dream of a KGB agent back in the Cold War days; I mean what a work he or she had to do to reach that amount of people and it was impossible. Now it’s easy and you can do it from outside you don’t even need to be in the US to infiltrate thesociety as such, to reach the audience with disinformation. So it’s very effective because this new cyber-enabled technology and social media platforms are so powerful. The other reason is that the difference fromthe Cold War for instance when the world was divided and there were no, hardly any links, between the Western world and the Soviet Union through the wall so to speak. Now we are so interlinked, we’re so interconnected these days. We are so interconnected with China and Russia as well that through these interconnectivities enable a lot of interference, for instance by economic means. So that’s the other reason. And it has shown to be very effective means of interfering other society, its internal affairs, and it hasn’t carried any costs really, I mean we see a lot of interference going on. Russians have been interfering with elections in France, in Germany, in the US, and many elections. And Chinese are interfering with a lot of countries as well in Australia, New Zealand and so on and forth. And it doesn’t carry any cost. 

Annala: There’s no prize for them to pay. 

Wigell: No. 

Annala: There’s no retaliatory action. Yeah, that’s a really difficult question for the Americans to my understanding. I went to some cyber warfare workshops that were open to the public when I was living in Boston at Harvard University, and they were always struggling… the speakers were always struggling with the question of how to retaliate when the US is trying to be the good guy in cyber. They don’t want to resort to the same tactics that the adversaries are using but at the same time they feel that taking the high road is leaving them quite toothless. 

Wigell: That is a very good point as well to bring up; that of course democracy doesn’t want to take the same tactics, we don’t want to do hybrid interference because that undermines democracy. So it’s not a smart strategy in the end for us to use. We need to find retaliation by other means by democratic means so to speak. That could of course mean retaliatory sanctions. Or just means perhaps trying even more vigorously to defend democratic values around the world because that’s a bit of a threat to these countries as well and expose their hybrid interference, expose the corruption in their societies; that can be means of retaliation as well. So those are the things that we want to focus on in this defense against hybrid interference 

Annala: If Trump is elected in 2020, and he sticks to this attitude where he doesn’t really want to admit that hybrid interference is happening then we’re not going to see Western democracies – at least not lead by the US – take action together to fight this hybrid interference, whereas if Trump loses and for example Joe Biden is elected president, it might not be his priority, but it might at least leave some more room for Western Democratic collaboration with regards to this matter. 

Wigell: Yeah, it’s a good point. I mean I’m sure Biden, if he wins, will focus more on defending against hybrid interference and trying to get together a more of a hybrid defense. But it’s of course very difficult – in the very polarized climate in the US – even if he becomes president. These political divisions will be there and it will need some consensus over the party lines, over the political party lines to come together and make this campaign law reforms and campaign finance reforms and so and forth and that won’t be easy. And this is of course the nefarious aspect with hybrid defense as well; that it is a kind of a wedge strategy, it tries to drive these wedges in the societies and now they are there. And it is not very easy to defend against this type of interference – that would take some cohesion; that would take consensus that the society stands together against this, that’s the best defense that you can have against hybrid interference. But that’s so difficult because now we are in a situation that is very, very polarized.  

Annala: So it’s even possible that the interfering countries have already won? 

Wigell: Well it looks a bit bleak. We see all around the Western world, in Europe, in the US that democracy is under real threat. I think Western democracy has never really been under these sorts of threats before. And that sort of civic culture that keeps up democracy; the sort of civic culture when you agree to disagree, when you can defend your political opponents right to say things – that’s almost gone by now. And that civic culture is so important to have a functioning democratic system. And I don’t know how to mend that; how to get that civic culture together again and that sort of basic consensus that you need to lead democratic societies. It looks quite bleak for the time being. 

Annala: Yes it does. We’re almost out of time but to finish this off, could you describe one nightmare scenario and one optimistic scenario about how the 2020 elections might play out?  

Wigell: Well I think the nightmare scenario is that it drags on with the postal voting for instance; you have very close election and Trump wants to go and call it and it look for the democrats; looks completely legitimate. That he… you know, you getting in the votes from those counties that usually comes in first that supports Trump and then he wants to call the election, call him the winner. Even though votes haven’t been counted. You have all sorts of problems with how the voting went, the voter registrations, you had a lot of disinformation so it looks like kind of the democratic system has really failed. That’s of course a nightmare scenario. Much better scenario is if one of the candidates would win outright win… 

Annala: By a landslide. 

Wigell: By a landslide. That would make less of this kind of inconsistencies that would look like illegitimate… I hope for a landslide for some of the candidates. 

Annala: That would definitely restore some of the Americans faith in democracy if one candidate won by a landslide. The American voter wouldn’t have to question whether it was interference or whether it was some failures caused by the coronavirus; then they would know for kind of certainty that this is how it was going to go and this is what the voters want and this is the result we got. So yes here’s hoping for that. Thank you so much for coming. 

Wigell: Thanks my pleasure. 

Annala: Thanks for listening. Please tune in next week for our next episode. We’ll be discussing the relationship between the US and Iran. If Joe Biden wins in November is Iran still interested in negotiating a nuclear deal? What will happen between the two countries if Trump gets a second term? Our guest will be Research Fellow Mariette Hägglund from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.