How to Combat Russian Disinformation in the U.S. Presidential Election

We should focus on ads and news coverage about what each candidate would do if elected.

Thomas Kent
September 14, 2020

Russia made a big push to influence the 2016 U.S. elections. From deploying fake personalities on social media to promoting disruption in the streets, the Kremlin worked hard to make America’s political climate even more toxic and divided.

What’s Moscow’s strategy this time around?

So far, Kremlin-funded media like RT and Sputnik News, along with real and fake accounts on social platforms, generally favor the re-election of President Donald Trump. But Moscow has little confidence in any American president. Russian-controlled voices have also been tough on Trump, especially on foreign policy and his handling of COVID.

As in 2016, Russia is looking to intensify whatever can further divide American society. The Kremlin isn’t ideological. Its outlets have agitated for and against the Black Lives Matter movement, for and against vaccinations, and boosted Bernie Sanders when he seemed to be splitting the Democratic Party. The Russian goal is simply to encourage any force that can add stress to U.S. politics and society.

The Kremlin also encourages doubt about America’s ability to hold a fair election amid political chaos. Russian operators seem to enjoy Americans worrying about their power. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, a bizarre website purportedly run by Russia’s Internet Research Agency told Americans, “Whether you vote or not, there is no difference as we control the voting and counting systems. Remember, your vote has zero value.”

The goal of such tactics is not simply to undermine Americans’ confidence in our electoral process, but to also convince democracy activists elsewhere that free elections can never be trusted.

The Kremlin, of course, didn’t invent America’s political divisions. Russians may rightly feel they are being blamed for social problems that are American at root. That said, Russia clearly seeks to have a voice in U.S. domestic politics.

How can we protect ourselves from destructive activities by Russians and our own disinformation sources? Obviously, much depends on efforts to harden our voting infrastructure and expose foreign interference. Some such efforts are underway by government agencies and non-government watchdogs.

As individuals, we would be wise to disregard the unfortunate claims from both parties that unless they win, the election will have been rigged. We should also focus not on negative ads, which all sides are adept at, but on ads and news coverage about what each candidate would do if elected. That should be the real test of who deserves our vote.


Thomas Kent: A man with gray hair, eyeglasses, wearing a blue shirt and red tie.

Thomas Kent teaches about the world information war and international journalism at the Harriman Institute. His new book, Striking Back: Overt and Covert Options to Combat Russian Disinformation, will be published on September 30.



This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.