WASHINGTON – Russia didn't have to lift a finger.
In the weeks before the U.S. presidential election, federal authorities warned that Russia or other foreign countries might spread false information about the results to discredit the legitimacy of the outcome.
Turns out, the loudest megaphone for that message belonged not to Russia but to President Donald Trump, who has trumpeted a blizzard of thoroughly debunked claims to proclaim that he, not President-elect Joe Biden, was the rightful winner.
The resulting chaos is consistent with longstanding Russian interests to sow discord in the United States and to chip away at the country's democratic foundations and standing on the world stage. If the 2016 election raised concerns about foreign interference in U.S. politics, the 2020 contest shows how Americans themselves, and their leaders, can be a powerful source of disinformation without other governments even needing to do the work.
“For quite a while at this point, the Kremlin has been able to essentially just use and amplify the content, the false and misleading and sensational, politically divisive content generated by political officials and American themselves" rather than create their own narratives and content, said former CIA officer Cindy Otis, vice president for analysis at the Alethea Group, which tracks disinformation.
U.S. officials had been on high alert for foreign interference heading into Nov. 3, especially after a presidential election four years earlier in which Russian intelligence officers hacked Democratic emails and Russian troll farms used social media to sway public opinion.
Public service announcements from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity arm warned of the ways Russia or other countries could interfere again, including by creating or altering websites after the election to spread false information about the results “in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions.”
Yet many of the false claims about voting, elections and the candidates in the months and weeks ahead of the election — and in the days since — originated not from foreign actors eager to destabilize the U.S. but from domestic groups and Trump himself.