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The Russians have no need to spread misinformation. Trump and his allies are doing it for them

“Nothing that Russia or Iran or China could say is anywhere near as wild as what the president is saying,” said a former FBI agent who tracks foreign disinformation.
Image: Trump Supporters Hold \"Stop The Steal\" Protest At Pennsylvania State Capitol
Protesters call for stopping the vote count in Pennsylvania on the steps of the State Capitol on Nov. 5, 2020 in Harrisburg.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

In September, U.S. intelligence officials warned that because of the pandemic, it might take a few days for the results of the presidential election to emerge—and that foreign adversaries might exploit the delay to spread false information intended to undermine confidence in the vote.

But instead of doing that, American officials and private experts say, the Russians and other foreign influencers have appeared content to report on the claims – made with no evidence – by President Trump and his allies that the election is being “stolen” from them.

“US President Donald Trump said that every vote that came in after Election Day will not be counted,” reported Sputnik, an English-language Russian government web site, after Trump tweeted “Stop the count,” Thursday morning.

“Trump calls results ‘big WIN’ & accuses opponents of ‘trying to STEAL’ election, gets ‘misleading’ label from Twitter,” said RT, another Russian media operation, on Wednesday.

“Nothing that Russia or Iran or China could say is anywhere near as wild as what the president is saying,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent who tracks foreign disinformation. “We cannot say this time that Russia, Iran or China interfered in a significant way. They don’t need to write fake news this time--we’re making plenty of fake news of our own.”

As NBC News and other major news organizations have reported, no evidence of election fraud has emerged as a handful of contested states count the remaining ballots, most of which were sent by mail. But Trump and his allies have continued to claim otherwise.

“STOP THE FRAUD” Trump tweeted Thursday in all caps—leading Twitter to slap a label on that and other of his tweets warning that they are “disputed” and “might be misleading about an election or other civic process.”

Trump ally Newt Gingrich also received a Twitter warning label when he tweeted Thursday morning:

“It is increasingly clear that Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania are all being stolen by Democrats and the research is almost certainly going to yield far more votes stolen than Biden’s current margins.”

Trump set the tone during an early morning news conference Wednesday, when he said the election was “a major fraud on our nation.”

Using the Twitter hashtag #stopthesteal, prominent Republicans such as American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, and Eric Trump, the president’s son, have perpetuated the baseless narrative.

“The amount of FRAUD being reported in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, Georgia and Wisconsin is unreal,” Eric Trump tweeted Thursday. “Please report personal experiences. Please have all facts and evidence. #StopTheSteal”

In one case, a false claim of fraud stemmed from a computer error in Michigan, when Democrat Joe Biden appeared to receive a sudden influx of 138,339 votes while other candidates received none. Officials said it was a data error that was soon corrected, but not before tweets of screenshots circulated—and were retweeted by the president.

Facebook on Thursday said it shut down a “Stop the Steal” group that had assembled more than 300,000 members and was raising money to challenge election results.

“The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” a Facebook spokesperson told NBC News.

The group had promoted debunked allegations of fraud, including claims that Trump votes had been discarded.

Bret Shafer, who tracks disinformation at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, said he noticed that the group had been setting up private web sites, as if anticipating such a move.

Russian propaganda organs have reported extensively on claims of fraud, but have not gone out of their way to amplify them, he said.

“What we’ve seen for the most part out of Russian right now is that the U.S. is a mess, it’s in chaos, democracy is falling apart,” Shafer said.

On Sept. 22, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a public warning about the potential for post-election disinformation by foreign adversaries.

“The increased use of mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 protocols could leave officials with incomplete results on election night,” the document said. “Foreign actors and cybercriminals could exploit the time required to certify and announce elections’ results by disseminating disinformation that includes reports of voter suppression, cyberattacks targeting election infrastructure, voter or ballot fraud, and other problems intended to convince the public of the elections’ illegitimacy.”

The officials urged Americans “to critically evaluate the sources of the information they consume and to seek out reliable and verified information from trusted sources, such as state and local election officials.”

But, said Shafer, “compared to what we are seeing in the domestic sphere, the foreign stuff has been pretty tame.”