How Can We Tell Which Election Interference Is Most Dangerous?

Michael Strong

According to the top U.S. intelligence official working on election interference, Iran and China are working for a Biden win whereas Russia is working for a Trump win.  Should partisans of a candidate care about which hostile nation supports their candidate?

For instance, a case could be made that for Democratic partisans, the need to vote Trump out of office is so urgent that any interference from Iran and China in support of Biden should be welcomed - perhaps even encouraged!

Likewise, one can imagine Trump advocates being so intensely partisan that they don't mind at all that Russia interferes with campaigns on behalf of Trump - they may regard the importance of electing Trump to be more important than how he is elected.

Moreover, the U.S. has interfered in literally dozens of elections in recent decades - what moral high ground do we have to stand on in objecting to foreign election interference when we've been actively interfering in elections over and over again?  For instance, 

During the Cold War, America’s leaders saw nothing wrong with electoral interference, so long as the United States was conducting it. Dov Levin, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University, has identified 62 American interventions in foreign elections between 1946 and 1989. The large majority—like Russia’s in 2016—were conducted in secret. And, overall, America’s favored candidates were no more committed to liberal democracy than their opponents; they simply appeared friendlier to American interests. In 1968, for instance, Lyndon Johnson’s administration—fearful that the people of Guyana would choose a socialist, Cheddi Jagan—helped Jagan’s main opponent, Forbes Burnham, win an election marked by massive voter fraud. Burnham soon turned Guyana into a dictatorship, which he ruled until his death in 1985.

But perhaps hypocrisy on behalf of the U.S. is old news - does it still matter?

Meanwhile, Nancy Pelosi is arguing that the Russian interference is much worse than is the Chinese interference,

"They're not equivalent," she said. "Russia is actively, 24/7 interfering in our election. They did so in 2016, and they are doing so now," Pelosi said. China, on the other hand, may prefer Biden "but they’re not really getting involved in the presidential election." 

How can we have confidence in any of these assessments?  Do we have reason to believe we know the scale of election interference from Russia, China, or Iran?  What evidence do you have that a particular type of election interference is more nefarious than another?

For those who believe that it is a slam dunk that Russian interference is the most dangerous, consider this detailed article on the potential role of TikTok in spreading propaganda, 

TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference. TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing. You may be skeptical this might happen, but again, China has already demonstrated a willingness to censor speech on a platform banned in China; how much of a leap is it to think that a Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?

Again, this is where it is worth taking China seriously: the Party has shown through its actions, particularly building and maintaining the Great Firewall at tremendous expense, that it believes in the power of information and ideas. Countless speeches, from Chairman Xi and others, have stated that the Party believes it is in an ideological war with liberalism generally and the U.S. specifically. If we are to give China’s leaders the respect of believing what they say, instead of projecting our own beliefs for no reason other than our own solipsism, how can we take that chance?

Are we simply left with fear and suspicion?