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Research Questions

  1. What do people think and feel about Russian-sourced content during an election year?
  2. Could a PSA affect these views?

This report is the fourth in a four-part series aimed at helping policymakers and the public understand—and mitigate—the threat of online foreign interference in national, state, and local elections. During future U.S. political campaigns, Russia might try again to manipulate and divide U.S. voters via social media. Given the past and likely extant threats to U.S. elections, the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services asked for research to help analyze, forecast, and mitigate threats by foreign actors targeting local, state, and national elections.

This report first describes research from focus groups and individual interviews on how people respond to memes sourced in Russia that were designed to breed dissension and to a public service announcement (PSA) warning about such online manipulation, then outlines a strategy to counter foreign interference in U.S. elections. The authors posit that adversaries are trying to exploit fault lines that already exist within U.S. society. These efforts could be effectively countered by collecting open-source intelligence on social media; releasing a simple, well-designed PSA for use during election cycles that warns the public about strategic threats targeting U.S. elections; and coordinating with social media companies to flag the source of foreign political content.

Key Findings

  • Russian information efforts are recycling U.S. partisanship at scale.
  • Most participants in focus groups and interviews mistakenly assumed that Russian content was sourced by Americans.
  • Most of these participants held a positive view of a PSA on foreign election interference that provided a nonpartisan, general warning created by an authoritative source: the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
  • After interviewers told participants that the content they viewed was from Russia, the PSA appeared to be particularly relevant to them.

Recommendations

  • Cal OES should collect open-source intelligence on social media well before the start of electoral cycles to spot trends of foreign interference.
  • Federal and state officials should release simple, well-designed PSAs for use during election cycles that warn the public about strategic threats targeting U.S. elections.
  • Cal OES coordinate with social media companies to flag the source of foreign political content.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Background and Methods

  • Chapter Three

    Focus Groups of Partisans and Independents

  • Chapter Four

    Individual Interviews

  • Chapter Five

    Conclusion and Recommendations

  • Appendix A

    Focus Group and Interview Guide

  • Appendix B

    Response Rates for Focus Groups and Interviews

  • Appendix C

    Relevant Literature

This research was sponsored by Cal OES and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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