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How Russia Targets U.S. Elections, Black Workers and COVID-19, TikTok: RAND Weekly Recap

October 2, 2020

We discuss how Russia uses social media to divide Americans; a sharp increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic; how the COVID-19 recession and recovery is leaving Black workers behind; how prepared schools were before the pandemic hit; TikTok’s vulnerabilities; and a tabletop strategy game developed by RAND experts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in a video conference call with officials and public representatives of the region of Dagestan amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, Russia May 18, 2020, photo by Alexei Nikolsky/Reuters

Photo by Alexei Nikolsky/Reuters

How Russia Targets U.S. Elections

As election season progresses, Russia may again be attempting to manipulate and divide Americans. RAND researchers examine this threat in a new report, the first in a series exploring online foreign interference in U.S. elections. The authors find that Moscow's recent efforts are based largely on strategies developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, new technology and the rise of social media have made it easier for Russia to implement its propaganda campaigns.

Here are some key takeaways:

  • Russia's goal is to further polarize Americans and paralyze the political process.
  • Russia aims to exacerbate existing fissures by focusing on divisive issues, such as racial inequities and immigration. It also targets confidence in democratic institutions and processes as a way to undermine social trust.
  • Russia uses falsehoods to spread confusion, drive people to extreme positions, and generate collective exhaustion in the United States.
  • The best defense against Russian disinformation is a holistic approach that accounts for preexisting fault lines in U.S. society.
Woman with a shopping cart wearing a mask and gloves in the alcohol aisle at the grocery store, photo by coldsnowstorm/Getty Images

Photo by coldsnowstorm/Getty Images

Americans Are Drinking Much More During the Pandemic

Americans' drinking has increased sharply during the COVID-19 shutdown, according to a new RAND study. Compared with the same time last year, alcohol consumption among adults over 30 is up by 14 percent. Additionally, heavy drinking among women has increased by 41 percent. The findings—some of the first survey data on alcohol consumption during the pandemic—highlight one more way that COVID-19 may be affecting Americans' physical and mental health.

A woman looks for information on the application for unemployment support at the New Orleans Office of Workforce Development in New Orleans, Louisiana, April 13, 2020, photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

A woman looks for information at the New Orleans Office of Workforce Development, April 13, 2020

Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Laid Off More, Hired Less: Black Workers and COVID-19

Black workers are once again being left behind. RAND economist Jhacova Williams breaks down the data: While a similar rate of Black and white workers were permanently laid off when the pandemic began, a higher percentage of white workers remained employed. Then, as businesses began to reopen, the white unemployment rate fell quickly, dropping to 7.3 percent by August. For Black workers, it was 13 percent. This disparity echoes patterns of past recessions, says Williams. And it could harm the incomes and wealth accumulation of millions of Black Americans for years.

A teacher showing a globe to her online elementary students, photo by ake1150sb/Getty Images

Photo by ake1150sb/Getty Images

Schools Weren't Prepared for COVID-19

RAND conducted a national survey of principals to learn more about how prepared schools were before COVID-19 hit. We asked about five indicators of preparedness, including whether schools provided students with laptops or tablets, and whether they had plans for a prolonged closure. Eighty-four percent of principals said that their school had at least one of the five indicators in place before the pandemic. Only seven percent reported having all five. Notably, most schools didn't have a plan for a prolonged closure.

The logo of the social network application TikTok and a US flag shown on a mobile device screen in Miami, Florida, September 18, 2020, photo by Johnny Louis/Reuters

Photo by Johnny Louis/Reuters

Is Time Up for TikTok?

Two U.S. companies, Oracle and Walmart, are aiming for ownership stakes in TikTok. If the deal goes through, Chinese parent company ByteDance would no longer hold a majority share of the popular video-sharing app. According to RAND experts, for this (or any) deal to pass government scrutiny—and to fully protect U.S. user data—two key vulnerabilities must be addressed. First, there are front-door vulnerabilities, which occur when a bad actor installs malicious code through a software update. A back-door vulnerability, on the other hand, is malware in the original code. If both of these “doors” aren't locked, then TikTok's time in the United States might be up.

Developed by RAND experts, Hedgemony is a game that challenges players to devise defense strategies for an uncertain world

Photo by RAND Corporation; Game cover design by Rick Penn-Kraus/RAND

Hedgemony: A Game of Strategic Choices

Tabletop games are widely used by defense strategists to explore how one armed force might match up against another. But they usually don't account for the bigger picture. That's why RAND experts created “Hedgemony,” a new kind of strategic game. In Hedgemony, players—who represent either the United States, its allies, or its key adversaries—use “hedging” strategies and make difficult choices about how to use their limited resources. The goal: gain more influence—in a certain region or throughout the world—than their competitors.

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