The idea that someone recently tried to influence Americans to vote for a particular candidate by sending them threatening emails may sound outlandish – as might federal officials’ allegation that the Iranian government is behind those messages.
But U.S. voters should prepare for even more strange and unexpected examples of information warfare that manipulate, distort or destroy election-related information between now and Election Day – and perhaps beyond that, depending on whether there are questions about who may have won the presidency.
Since 2016, Americans have learned that foreign interests attempt to affect the outcomes of presidential elections, including with social media postings and television ads.
As a scholar of Russian cyber operations, I know other nations, and Russia in particular, will go to extreme measures to influence people and destabilize democracy in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Here is what to look out for.
Also, watch for claims that hackers have gained access to, or manipulated, state or local election systems. It doesn’t have to be true for people to become worried, uncertain and untrusting of election results.
Be prepared to see ransomware attacks – software that seizes control of key computers and demands a ransom to unlock the system – on precincts in key battleground states, which may not aim to alter the vote, but rather stall the vote count and certification. A mid-October ransomware attack on Hall County, Georgia, government networks interrupted phone service and some computer systems, including a database used to verify voters’ signatures.
Anything can happen – but Americans can be ready to skeptically and critically examine any announcements of attempted, or claims of successful, election interference.
The real goal of information warriors – no matter where they are from, even beyond Russia and Iran – is to make it hard for Americans to know what is real.
In 2016, for instance, Russian disinformation operations created fake social media accounts claiming to be U.S. citizens, in hopes of spreading political division and conflict. They portrayed Hillary Clinton as weak and corrupt, which damaged her support among voters.
In this election cycle, the information warfare is more sophisticated. Russian-made propaganda has portrayed Joe Biden as incompetent and corrupt – but has also claimed that U.S. democracy is failing. Examples include an episode on a Kremlin-controlled Sputnik show titled “How much money to buy the presidency? Bloomberg tries to find out” and an episode called “Iowa Caucus Chaos: People are Losing Confidence in Election Results” on its sibling Russia Today video network. These outlets are available across the U.S. on radio, cable and satellite TV systems, and online – including on conservative websites.
Russian information warriors are impersonating real advocacy groups. They even created a now-defunct news website named Peace Data, which used fake names and photos for its editors, but hired unsuspecting real journalists as freelancers and ordered them to write stories critical of Biden, discussing corruption, abuse of power and human rights violations.
Some of the stories were also hostile to Trump, which indicates that the main goal remains to sow division in the United States.
Fortunately, businesses, federal cybersecurity officials and intelligence leaders are signaling that they are more willing than they were in 2016 to sound the alarm about foreign interference in the U.S. presidential election.
For instance, in August, the National Security Agency warned the cybsersecurity community about malicious software written by the Russian military, including details of the military unit involved, as well as advice on how system administrators can protect their networks and servers.
And in September, Microsoft reported that a Russian hacking group has attempted to intrude into the digital files of at least 200 organizations tied to the 2020 U.S. election. It targeted political campaigns, advocacy groups, parties and political consultants. Affiliated with Russian military intelligence, this is the same group that hacked and leaked damaging Democratic Party emails in 2016.
In late October, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and FBI Director Christopher Wray alleged that Russia and Iran had obtained U.S. voter registration information, at least some of which is publicly available. They also claimed – without offering evidence – that Iran is responsible for sending threatening emails to voters in as many as four states, including Florida and Alaska, that reportedly said “You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you.”
Big technology platforms have also taken steps to fight disinformation. Facebook took down a network of fake accounts linked to Russian military intelligence. Facebook will not post political ads in the week week before Election Day and Google will reject all election-related ads after Election Day to prevent false claims.
Twitter has also shut down accounts that it could reliably attribute to Russian-sponsored entities. And Twitter has sought to slow the spread of posts by limiting retweeting – though that has concerned Republicans, who fear this measure will stifle conservatives’ speech.
The week after Election Day could be volatile, especially if mail-in ballots are slow to be counted and results appear to change as the count continues.
Russia could use social media accounts that have not yet been detected to push reports of voter suppression or ballot fraud, trying to convince the public that election results are somehow inaccurate. U.S. Cyber Command might take Russian troll servers offline, as it did during the 2018 U.S. midterm election.
Meanwhile, voters can protect themselves by being skeptical of urgent or alarming claims in online media, and by remembering that they may be targets of disinformation campaigns. U.S. security agency efforts might stop Russia from altering the vote count, but sowing discord about its integrity could be enough to serve Russia’s goal of undermining democracy.
Fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan intensified in early October over Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed region in the South Caucasus at the centre of a conflict that has lasted for more than three decades.
The South Caucasus is sandwiched between Russia to the north, Iran to the south and Turkey to the west. Out of these three regional powers, Turkey’s vocal and military support for Azerbaijan has bolstered Baku’s confidence to refuse mediation in the conflict. Meanwhile, Moscow – which has historically been an important mediator in this conflict – is also committed to protect Armenia under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a regional security alliance.
Iran, however, has adopted an official neutral stance and has repeatedly offered to mediate over the past three decades. It’s doing the same today, with Iranian officials stating they are working on a peace plan.
The first war over Nagorno-Karabakh broke out in the late 1980s, resulting in Azerbaijan losing 20% of its territory to Armenia.
Tehran made an extensive effort to broker a ceasefire in 1992, only to see it violated by the Armenian militia within hours, discrediting Iran’s role as a mediator.
Although another ceasefire was eventually brokered in 1994, numerous rounds of negotiations, as well as regional and international mediation, most notably by the OSCE Minsk group, have not led to peace – or even a partial resolution of the dispute. While conflict has repeatedly flared up along the front line since then, for example in 2016, the current escalation, which began on September 27, is by far the most serious.
Iran is in no real position to mediate now, particularly given its own turbulent relationship with Baku, as well as international sensitivity over Iran’s increased regional influence. The only reason Iran repeats its offer of mediation is to confirm to Armenia and Azerbaijan – and their respective ethnic minorities and supporters inside Iran – that Tehran remains neutral. Such neutrality is important for Iran’s own domestic stability.
Until the early 19th century, Georgia, Armenia and the territories of the present-day Republic of Azerbaijan (known then as Arran) were under Persian control. Iran then lost these territories to Russia following its defeats in two wars.
The 1918 collapse of Russia’s Tsarist empire and the weakening of Moscow’s hold on Arran provided the opportunity for nationalist parties. Supported by the Ottoman Empire, they created the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which was integrated into the Soviet Union in 1920.
While, prior to 1918, there had been no political entity on the north of the Aras river with the name Azerbaijan, the people of Arran shared Turkic ethnicity and language with those in the north-western provinces of Iran, historically called Eastern and Western Azarbaijan.
This makes today’s 9 million population of Azerbaijan brethren of 16% of Iran’s population – another 20 million people. Iran is also home to more than 100,000 highly respected and well-integrated Armenians. They have strong and at times useful connections to the global Armenian diaspora, which has influential lobbies in western countries, especially the US.
With such an ethnic mix, any official support by Tehran for either Armenia or Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabach conflict could deepen the social faultlines to the point of conflict. It would also add to the various social dilemmas that the Iranian state is already facing, arising from economic hardship caused by US sanctions, rampant corruption and mismanagement, as well as public dissatisfaction with the state’s repressive policies.
At a time when social cohesion is in tatters, taking sides could easily result in widening ethnic divisions that could put Iran’s political and territorial integrity at risk.
As I have explained in my own research, with a shared Shia religion and civilisational background, Iran could have been Azerbaijan’s natural ally – especially as Armenia is a non-Muslim country. But Azerbaijan’s constant expansionist approach towards Iranian territories since its independence makes such an alliance highly unlikely, no matter who rules Iran.
Azerbaijan has made significant investments
in promoting separatist ideas among Turkic Iranians and maintained an appetite for integrating the Iranian provinces of Eastern and Western Azarbaijan into the republic. This has been one of the main reasons why Iran’s ruling Shia theocracy is reluctant to take Azerbaijan’s side, despite the fact that the majority of Azerbaijan’s population is also Shia.
Baku’s partnerships with the US and Israel, as well as its secular government with an adamant resistance to any influence from Iran, also increase the Islamic Republic’s hesitance to support Azerbaijan.
Armenia, on the other hand, has not demonstrated any expansionist policies towards Iranian territories. Nor has it developed relations with Iran’s nemeses – the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia – to a degree that undermines its cordial relations with Tehran. Still, it would be counter-intuitive for Iran’s Shia theocracy to overtly ally with a Christian republic against another Shia majority country.
This is why the best option for protecting Iran’s security and stability is for Tehran to maintain its neutral stance while supporting international initiatives to resolve the conflict.
On Tuesday, Vladimir Putin announced Russia was the first country to register a vaccine offering “sustainable immunity” against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute in Moscow, it’s been registered with the Russian Health Ministry and approved for emergency use only.
But there are concerns it will soon be rolled out across the Russian population, far beyond emergency use. This has prompted discussion about the “race” towards a COVID-19 vaccine.
While speed is important, ensuring a vaccine is effective and safe is much more critical. The consequences of doling out a potentially unsafe and ineffective vaccine could be wide-reaching.
The Gamaleya Research Institute announced it registered a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine with the Russian Health Ministry, the local regulatory body that determines which medicines can be used in Russia. This vaccine is called “Sputnik V” and the Institute has indicated it’s approved for emergency use. An emergency use approval generally means a vaccine could be offered to people at very high risk of infection, such as health-care workers, but not the general civilian population.
The Institute had previously registered this vaccine for a Phase I/II trial (to assess safety and immune responses in humans), initially with just 38 people. Senior Russian officials said it induced a strong immune response and no “serious complications” in this trial. This isn’t too surprising, as published data from human clinical trials for other similar vaccines have shown strong immune responses and no serious complications.
However, the data from the trial of Sputnik V has not been published and there is no data that indicates the vaccine would actually protect, as Phase III studies (requiring thousands of volunteers to demonstrate efficacy and detect rare side-effects) haven’t been performed.
The Institute did announce a Phase III trial for Sputnik V will begin on August 12 in Russia and several other countries. However, many scientists (including Russian researchers) expressed concern the vaccine will soon be used in large civilian vaccination campaigns, which wouldn’t usually be the case with an approval for emergency use.
If we go back to the analogy of a “race”, we should stop thinking of vaccine development as the 100-metre sprint. Instead, think of it more like the pentathlon. In the pentathlon, each section the athlete completes contributes to their overall score and cannot be missed. If we try to run this race against COVID-19 without each section, we could end up with a vaccine which has not been properly tested, which could be unsafe and would be unethical. And then we all lose.
The risks of advancing into mass vaccination without proper testing are significant. If a vaccine is released but side-effects emerge, the consequences include both the health impacts and deterioration in trust from our community. If the vaccine does not protect individuals from infection, those who have been vaccinated could falsely believe they are protected.
Our system of methodical series of clinical trials has been designed, oftentimes with hard-won lessons, to avoid oversights and build essential data on safety, immunity and protection with vaccines.
As stated by the US Health and Human Services secretary, Alex Azar:
The point is not to be first with a vaccine. The point is to have a vaccine that is safe and effective for the American people and the people of the world.
Development takes time and we need to be realistic with our timelines and expectations.
When countries consider introducing a vaccine, the following information is examined:
how safe is the vaccine?
how well does the vaccine work?
how serious is the disease the vaccine would prevent?
how many people would get the disease if we did not have the vaccine?
This information is collected during each phase of the clinical trials (Phase I, II and III), with a particular focus on vaccine safety at each step. Developing this package of information can take years, but there have been cases when timelines were condensed.
For example, testing for an Ebola vaccine was condensed down to five years due to a critical need for a vaccine in the midst of ongoing epidemics. Regardless of this urgency, each clinical trial phase was still completed.
Phase III clinical trials are especially critical to assess safety in a large group of people, because certain rare side effects may not be identified in earlier, smaller trials. For example, if a vaccine-related side effect only occurred in one in every 10,000 people, the trial would have to enrol 60,000 volunteers to detect it.
In general, vaccines are more thoroughly tested than any other medicine. We administer vaccines to healthy people, so safety is the key priority, and we administer vaccines to large numbers of people, so rare side-effects must be identified.
This type of vaccine is called a viral vector. With viral vectors, we trick our immune system with a bait-and-switch; we take a harmless virus, modify it so it can’t replicate, and include a target from the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The vaccine looks like a dangerous virus to the immune system, so the immune response is relatively strong and targeted against SARS-CoV-2, but the virus can’t cause disease.
Sputnik V is unusual because it uses two different viral vectors, one after the other, in what we call a “prime boost”. The first is called Ad26, which is similar to a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Johnson&Johnson, and the second is called Ad5, which is similar to a COVID-19 vaccine being developed by CanSino Biologics. This prime boost should generate a relatively strong immune response, but we don’t know for sure.
Viral vectors are also a relatively new technology. There have been a number of large clinical trials with viral vectors for HIV, Malaria, Tuberculosis and Ebola, but only one for Ebola has ever been approved for use in the general population.