Scattered across the 448-page report released by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller are noteworthy findings about the extent of the Russians’ machinations, the ploys they used to insinuate themselves into the voting structure of a battleground county, and the ways in which Kremlin-tied saboteurs interacted with reporters. These disclosures contain cautions. For the social media platforms: Imposters lurk in unexpected places. For our nation’s secretaries of state: The Russians made greater inroads into our voting systems than we thought. And for the press: Some of you were the object of special Kremlin attention. The relevant Mueller passages should be seen as both a forewarning and an invitation to action.
Contrary to presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner’s pooh-poohing of the Russian intervention as “a couple Facebook ads,” the Special Counsel’s report confirms that the Kremlin’s efforts were “sweeping and systematic.” This finding comports with the one I advanced in Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President – the Russian social media messages aligned with those of the Trump campaign, focused on constituencies crucial to a Republican victory, and were sufficiently widespread to make a difference. For Russia to help the Trump campaign, no coordination was necessary.
Importantly, the “sweeping and systematic” Russian sabotage involved the theft of “hundreds of thousands of documents” as well as infiltration of social media platforms from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram to Reddit, Tumblr, and 9GAG. From cyberspace, Kremlin-tied players instigated rallies, sold merchandise, and even created a video game called Hilltendo. The lessons? In the run-up to the 2020 elections, campaign operatives should safeguard their digital musings and the social media platforms should look for interventions in any venue harboring an audience.
Like the story of the Russian social media manipulations, the extent of Russian intrusion in our electoral infrastructure went unrecognized for too long. Although in September 2017, 21 states were notified by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that the Russians had targeted their voting systems, not until April 2019 did the FBI and DHS report that there was related Russian research and reconnaissance in all 50 states. To that, the Mueller Report added a chronicle of Kremlin spearphishing of over 120 email accounts of Florida county election officials and of Russian insertion of “malicious software (commonly referred to as a Trojan) that permitted the GRU to access the infected computer.” To that tale of subversion, the Special Counsel then adds an ominous coda. The Russian saboteurs may have accessed the network of “at least one Florida county government.” Not only should any anomalies in registration or voting in that locale be scrutinized, but our news feeds should now be clogged with accounts of secretaries of state vigilantly hacker-proofing our elections. The lesson: forewarned is forearmed.
An additional take-away lurks nearby: appearance can have a reality of its own. The legitimacy of an election can be undercut without changing the outcome or mangling ballots. All that is needed is the assumption that a malign force may have done so. This dynamic comes alive in Mueller’s revelation that President-Elect Trump considered the intelligence community assessment about Russian interventions his “Achilles heel” insofar as “[E]ven if Russia had no impact on the election, people would think Russia helped him win, taking away from what he had accomplished.”
At the same time, for media outlets that have disregarded Matthew 7:5’s injunction to cast out the plank in their own eyes before focusing on the speck afflicting others, a cornea-stabbing sliver in the Special Counsel’s report indicates that Russian intelligence agents cloaked in their DCLeaks persona “gave certain reporters early access to archives of leaked files by sending them links and passwords to pages on the dcleaks.com website that had not yet become public.”
Those unnamed journalists might ask whether their hack-based stories withstand the test of time. Across the country, newsrooms should consider the possibility posited by the New York Times’ Amy Chozick that hurried and largely uncritical coverage of stolen Democratic missives may have made journalists, as Amy Chozick writes in Chasing Hillary, “puppets in Putin’s shadowy campaign.” There’s been little public evidence of the kinds of introspection that would suggest that, confronted with a similar situation in 2020, the press would respond differently.
If my argument in Cyberwar is correct, that debate matters. Evidence offered there suggests that the media’s use of the Russian-hacked private emails probably altered the electoral outcome by changing the news agenda during the Democratic convention, the weekend of the disclosure of the Access Hollywood tape, and the final four weeks of the campaign. In that closing month, coverage of the WikiLeak’d releases plausibly explains an October erosion in public confidence in Clinton’s qualification to be president.
The press, the platforms, and those safeguarding our electoral processes exist in a moment that may determine whether the words Winston Churchill spoke to the House of Commons in May 1935 will apply to them. “When the situation was manageable it was neglected,” he said, “and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure.”