Luckily for the Russians, then, the two current front-runners for the presidency, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, are both polarizing figures—and they’re both candidates Russian trolls sought to promote in 2016, as Special Counsel Robert Mueller found. This time, the Democratic field is crowded and squabbling, but it includes no hawkish, long-established Hillary Clinton to tear down. If the election does end up being a Trump-Sanders face-off, one of the Kremlin’s favored candidates from 2016 is guaranteed a win. They are far apart ideologically but nearly equally suited to the Kremlin’s interests, both in being divisive at home and in encouraging U.S. restraint abroad. Both Sanders and Trump profess to want to refocus the U.S. inward—a message that clearly appeals to many Americans. But that doesn’t mean the Russian propaganda machine is slowing down; it’s just aimed at a new target.
Read: The Sanders doctrine
Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who has studied Russian information operations, told me, “Systems like this don’t tend to stop simply because their reason for being no longer exists. They find new reasons for being.” In this case, building on their 2016 successes and worsening divisions in the United States.
Linvill offered me a list of reasons the Kremlin still wants to interfere in U.S. politics, despite the fact that we’re already doing such a great job of dividing ourselves. Russia’s goals include depressing voter turnout and making it more difficult for the eventual winner to govern by sowing doubts about the electoral process.
The Kremlin might also still have a preference for Trump, if only because Russian leaders now know what to expect from him, Alina Polyakova, the president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, told me. The New York Times reported after we spoke that intelligence officials told lawmakers, in a briefing last week, that Russia is indeed interfering to help Trump again. The report did not specify exactly how. Then came reports that U.S. officials had briefed Sanders that Russia was interfering on behalf of his campaign—Sanders said that Putin should “stay out of American elections,” in keeping with his position since 2016.
No matter what, Polyakova said, “a U.S. that’s mired in its own domestic problems and not engaged in the world benefits Moscow.” That’s where the videos come in.
Americans are now the chief suppliers of the material that suspected Russia-linked accounts use to stoke anger ahead of U.S. elections, leaving Russia free to focus on pushing it as far as possible. Linvill has seen Russian trolls shift tactics to become “curators more than creators,” with the same goal of driving Americans apart. “The Russians love those videos,” he said, “because they function to make us more disgusted with one another.” He and a colleague have traced viral tweets about the Dallas incident to Russia-linked accounts that Twitter has since suspended.