If Russia Has Been Trying to Interfere in Our Elections Before, What Makes 2016 So Different?

That’s sort of the question, Senator Lankford asked a three person panel in a Senate Intelligence hearing a few months ago. Actually, he asked why the Russians interfered to such a large degree, in the present moment, in 2016. Here’s the video:

Clint Watts attempts to answer the question, but he actually seems to answer a different question–namely, why was the Russian interference so successful. (His answer is worth listening to.) Senator Lankford asks his question again. Here’s a breakdown of Watts’s answer (starting at the 2:30 mark; but it’s worth listening to his entire message), which I think is important:

They had plausible deniability. If you wanted to run this, during the Cold War, you’d have had to have put agents inside the United States. They would have been stalked by counter-intelligence professionals–they would have been run down. You couldn’t gain the audience on a Communist newspaper. Today, you can create the content, gain the audience, build the bots, pick out the election, and even the voters that are valued the most in swing states, and actually insert the right content in the deliberate period. They pre-planned it, they were based a year and a half out; they’re doing it today in the European elections.

Another way to say this: new technologies like the internet, smartphones, and social media have allowed Russia to influence and manipulate the election in a way that wasn’t possible during the Cold War. This is a critical point. I hear some people dismiss Russian interference by saying that they always have done this. But these people fail to realize that new technologies like the internet are a game changer–making Russian influence campaigns far potent and dangerous.

Watts continues:

And, here’s the other thing that needs to come up–they try all messages. You know, we’ve been very focused on the our presidential election, the Republicans tend to come up. But the Democrats, they were there, too; with Bernie Sanders supporters, trying to influence them in different directions. So they play all sides. Much like I learned in infantry school, about how they use artillery. They fire artillery everywhere and once they get a break in the wall, that’s where they swarm in, and they focus. And they do that very well today. You’ll see them in Europe, supporting people on the left or right, whichever will dismantle the democratic function that they’re after.

In other words, the Russians will target any groups or individuals that have the potential of weakening the country–and I think this is as broad as it sounds. The targets may be individuals or groups that promote ideas that undermine key targets. For example, the Russians may craft a message, including one that is fabricated or distorted, to far left groups about the way government intelligence agencies did something improper. If these groups begin to adopt this message and spread it, the Russians might send more disinformation to those groups. Perhaps they’ll financially support these groups or individuals within them.

A key point in this is that the Russians are agnostic in many ways. IF anything they oppose any system that would be a threat to authoritarian regime. This is different from the Cold War, where the battle involved two different political and economic ideologies. Now, the battle is between democratic rebublics and autocracies. (In a way, this is close to good versus evil.)

I also think the Russians won’t limit their targets to political groups, left or right. They could target any non-political individuals and groups that have an influence in the society. They could use corruption, bribery (kompromat), or influence techniques to manipulate these individuals and groups to achieve Russian objectives.

So I think the important point moving forward is, we have to educate our public and even our institutions. And the mainstream media is right to be taking some on the chin right now. They’ve fallen for a lot of these fake news stories. They’ve amplified it, and they’ve not gone back and done the fact-checking. The media needs to improve. Our U.S. government institutions need to improve.

Takeaway: all aspects of our society needs to be aware of this, at the very least. In addition to citizens, government institutions and the media, businesses, banks, universities, think-tanks, etc. They might be a need for a coordinated effort to respond–either defensively or offensively.

And we gotta help Americans understand what the facts are–because if we don’t, we are lost. We’ll become two separate, maybe three separate worlds in the United States. Just because of this little, little bitty pinprick that was put in by a foreign country.

I’m not sure this point is widely understood. By this, I take Watts to mean that conservatives and liberals, for example, will live in two different information bubbles–two very different worlds with a different set of facts. I take this seriously because I already see signs that we’re moving in this direction. The Russians are exploiting this, and may likely try to make it worse.

2 Responses to “If Russia Has Been Trying to Interfere in Our Elections Before, What Makes 2016 So Different?”


  1. Reid

    From Politico: How Russia Targets U.S. Military Personnel on Social Media

    This is another example of how new technologies and media are a game-changers for the Russians (and other hostile actors):

    In the 20th century, intelligence agencies looking to build ties with foreign soldiers might have gone through the trouble of sending agents out to watering holes near military bases, waiting for servicemen to show up and gaining their trust one drink at a time.

    Now, social media makes it cheap and easy to target soldiers and veterans in their virtual hangouts for intelligence-gathering and influence campaigns….

    … Russia is one of several foreign powers using social media lures to gather intelligence on the U.S. military. “Some are quite unsophisticated (attractive woman sending friend requests), some get more complicated,” he wrote in an email. “Spies understand that a great deal can be discerned about what militaries are up to based on the unclassified behavior of soldiers.”

    Forming connections on social media could help foreign states directly communicate with groups of American soldiers, a tactic employed in recent conflicts by both Russia and the U.S. During the first days of the annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian soldiers were bombarded with demoralizing text messages such as, “Soldier you are just a raw meat for your commanders….”

    …The Pentagon is clearly worried. Defense Department spokeswoman Linda Rojas declined to comment on specific activities, but said new technologies have made the military more vulnerable in cyber space. “The proliferation of internet-based communications and social media applications has elevated the potential for nefarious use that could affect our personnel,” she wrote in an email.

    The following is pretty alarming:

    In May and June of 2015, Kellermann, who was then the chief cybersecurity officer at Trend Micro, said the firm warned the FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that Kremlin hackers had drawn up a list of 2,300 people comprising the most powerful leaders in Washington and New York along with their spouses and lovers to target with a concerted hacking campaign. Kellerman said he does not know whether the government acted on the tip, which warned that the hackers had the ability to turn on microphones and cameras on the personal devices of their targets to obtain sensitive information about their personal lives. But he believes the campaign has successfully compromised American leaders, emboldening the Kremlin. “When you wonder why certain people act certain ways,” he said, “You have to remember these people have been warned that their dirty laundry could be aired.” (Spokespeople for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI declined to comment.)

    (emphasis added)

  2. Reid

    Here’s another reason: Accounts That Actively Spread Misinformation Are More Likely to be Bots

    No internet, social media, bots, and trolls before. Now millions get their news and political discourse in this environment. That’s a big reason the Russian interference is different.

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