So far, however, the kind of massive hacking-and-leaking operation that took the law-enforcement and intelligence communities by surprise in 2016 has not materialized. And, overall, the preparation and response to irregularities in the run-up to the midterms has been reassuring, experts say.
Robert Johnston, the cybersecurity expert who was the first outside investigator to uncover the extent of Russia’s hacks into the DNC during the 2016 election, said that while he believes there’s been an uptick this year in the number of attacks on voter-registration databases and election infrastructure, it would be “disingenuous” to say that it’s “business as usual” on an institutional level in terms of protecting against and responding to these attacks. “There’s still a long way to go,” he said. “But when you have the government providing this much money to the states, the DOJ pumping out indictments against anyone who hacks our election, and our intelligence agencies intimidating people overseas who aren’t acting in our best interests, it becomes clear that we’re on the right track.” (The NSA has reportedly begun sending messages directly to Russian hackers, reminding them that they are being watched.)
Those seeking to sow disinformation and wage information warfare, meanwhile, continue to prey upon social-media users, despite their increased awareness of organized foreign-influence operations.
The Justice Department has already charged a Russian national with interfering in the midterms: Elena Khusyaynova, 44, who allegedly managed the finances of an election-interference campaign run out of the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, code-named Project Lakhta. The troll factory’s budget for the project, which Khusyaynova allegedly controlled, exceeded 73 million Russian rubles—or roughly $1.2 million—a month. The budget grew almost monthly between January and June 2018 as the Russian trolls targeted the midterms, according to the DOJ’s criminal complaint.
Russia’s brazen interference in 2016 has also heightened awareness among social-media companies, which have been either proactive or cooperative in shutting down nefarious actors.
Facebook—which did not discover until late 2017 that the Russians had purchased hundreds of political ads that were seen by approximately 10 million users in 2016—revealed over the summer that it shut down Russian and Iranian accounts that were waging political-influence campaigns to sway the midterms, and set up a “war room” where a team will monitor fake news and disinformation on Election Day. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, successfully encouraged Twitter to delete more than 10,000 “bot” accounts that were posing as Democrats while discouraging people from voting in Tuesday’s midterms.
Experts broadly agree that the disinformation campaign leading up to the midterms has been more muted than in 2016. “We’re seeing activity in the U.S., but we’re seeing it at levels less than we saw in 2016,” Tom Burt, the vice president for customer security and trust at Microsoft, told The New York Times this month. The Russian trolls that are still active have largely focused on Europe, where they’ve sought to deflect blame away from Russia for the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, said Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University and a Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow. “You only have so many English-language operators,” Watts said. Johnston agreed, noting that Russia’s attention has turned toward fueling division in Europe and Ukraine, which has been a battleground for disinformation and propaganda since at least 2014, when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea.