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How the U.S. has stepped up fight against foreign disinformation

As Election Day nears, protecting American voters and election systems from foreign disinformation is a daily struggle. The government and private companies have significantly stepped up their ability to expose disinformation from Russia, China and Iran since 2016, but these nations are still exploiting internal American fissures and vulnerabilities as the election looms. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With Election Day 2020 just five days away, the efforts to protect American elections and the systems they rely on from foreign interference is a daily struggle.

    Last night, we looked at the impact of domestic misinformation on America's voters, tonight, the battle with foreign interference.

    In a moment, Nick Schifrin speaks with the top U.S. counterintelligence official charged with combating foreign attacks on America's systems.

    But, first, here's Nick with some background on foreign disinformation.

  • Man:

    … who has betrayed the republic and auctioned his soul and conscience.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In 2017, when protesters mocked President Trump with French Revolutionary, they didn't realize they'd been duped by Russian trolls.

    Fake Russian Facebook accounts called on Americans to protest in real life after the election. In fact, Russian efforts in the U.S. never stopped. But, by 2020, they evolved.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    I think the difference that we're seeing from disinformation in 2016 coming from Russia and what we're seeing today is that Russia's kind of been forced underground.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nina Jankowicz is The Wilson Center's disinformation fellow. She says Russian tactics have changed, but the strategy remains the same.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    The goal is to cause chaos and distrust in the institutions that govern our democracy and, frankly, to cause discord between Americans themselves.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the last month, the FBI and social media companies exposed two Russian disinformation operations that posed as news sites, PeaceData, which disparaged Vice President Biden from the left, and the Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens, which fueled right-wing outrage.

    Both sites hired real, unwitting Americans to try and provide authenticity. And both sites' had photos of supposed editors, which weren't real people, but generated by artificial intelligence.

  • Ben Nimmo:

    They were trying much harder to be convincing, rather than creating lots and lots of very edgy troll accounts.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ben Nimmo is the investigations editor at Graphika, and worked with social media companies to expose the sites. He says both highlighted the election, and NAEBC claimed the election would be fraudulent.

  • Ben Nimmo:

    Lots of claims of hundreds of thousands of ballots going missing or being trashed or being delivered to the wrong people or people getting multiple ballots

  • President Donald Trump:

    I think that mail in voting is a terrible thing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last week, Iran did the same, amplifying President Trump. A video sent to Democrats falsely claimed that voter databases had been hacked. The U.S. government says Iranian actors used publicly available data to convince Americans the election is more vulnerable than it really is. Russia has done the same.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Rather than actually getting in our voting systems, they can create the perception that they were in them. That is a way to create an environment of distrust toward the election infrastructure, toward the election certification process.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's important to have perspective.

    In 2016, the Internet Research Agency, located in this Saint Petersburg building, created posts that were shared in the U.S. 31 million times, liked 39 million times, and received 3.5 million comments. Today's efforts reach a fraction of that audience, thanks in part to early detection by intelligence services, working with social media companies and researchers.

  • Nathaniel Gleicher:

    That change has been one of the most radical shifts to ensure that we're finding these operations earlier and tackling them earlier.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nathaniel Gleicher is Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy.

  • Nathaniel Gleicher:

    These operations are getting caught sooner. They're reaching fewer people. And they're not having the impact and the effect that I'm sure the actors behind them want.

    We all need to be aware this is happening, but we also need to recognize that it's not as widespread as many people think.

  • Ben Nimmo:

    It's much harder for the trolls to get away with the kind of thing they tried in 2016. And that means they have to try harder.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Europe, Russia's tried forgeries. Russian actors created a fake Senator Marco Rubio tweet and fake BuzzFeed posts in three languages to spread the false story Britain spied on President Trump.

    There was a fake Committee to Protect Journalists letter, a fake Senate on Foreign Relations Committee letter. The fear is, those tactics could come to the U.S. if the election is disputed.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Russia is nailing our internal fissures, really manipulating them, amplifying them, whereas the stuff that we see coming from China and Iran is a little bit more bumbling.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And U.S. intelligence officials tell "PBS NewsHour" Russian actors successfully hacked government and commercial networks in at least two states, although the election wasn't their main target.

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