Speaking to journalists on her campaign plane above Illinois, Hillary Clinton said on Monday that she is “really concerned about the credible reports about Russian government interference in our elections.”
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Russia’s digital espionage became a major campaign issue after Russian hackers broke into the Democratic National Committee’s server and released emails that caused a scandal on the first day of the Democratic National Convention. Since then a Russian hacking group has boasted of stealing hacking tools from the National Security Agency, and most recently has demonstrated that it can access voter registries on electoral computers, potentially allowing for false identities to be added to the register.
Combined with revelations that Russian hackers have been falsifying hacked documents to discredit their domestic opponents, the threat is being taken seriously.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has written to the FBI about fears that Russia may attempt “to falsify official election results.” This week it was announced that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is coordinating an investigation into Russia’s activities.
But there are good reasons to doubt that Russia intends to commit electoral fraud in the United States. Firstly, all of these hacks were quite easily linked to Russia by investigators, and while Russian hackers could do more to hide their tracks, these high-profile hacks have caused U.S. intelligence agencies to be on high alert. It is therefore difficult to see what Russia stands to gain by trying to directly tamper with the vote, given the risk of getting caught, and the serious damage this would do to its reputation. There is however a more plausible explanation for the spate of hacks.
“The aim is to sow distrust in our institutions and to undermine the idea of liberal democracy,” explained Peter Pomeranzev, who spent a decade working in Russian television before leading the Beyond Propaganda research project at the London-based Legatum Institute. He believes the hacks are part of a broader propaganda campaign.
“The Russians don’t put boundaries around psychological operations, the media, hacking — they see it all as connected, as tools they can use when needed.”
Russian online propaganda is often derided as crude. The Olginauts, named after the village of Olgino, north of St Petersburg where the St Petersburg Internet Research Agency set up its first office block for the production of online disinformation, have received plenty of media attention. They have evolved from hounding Putin’s domestic critics, to promoting anti-Ukrainian stories, to their recent incarnation as pro-Trump conservatives in the United States. But so far they have not been widely associated with the hacks.
At this Pomeranzev shakes his head, “they can work together when they need to.”
This was demonstrated on September 11, 2014 when Russia’s Olginauts fabricated a scare over a chemical leak in Louisiana. They supported this false news with doctored screenshots supposedly from CNN and fully functioning clones of websites of Louisiana media — all built to suggest that the disaster was being covered on major websites.
There are good reasons to believe that the electoral hacks are similarly designed to sow distrust and panic, to erode people’s confidence in the process, rather than to commit fraud. The hack of the Democratic National Committee, for example, released emails that suggested the DNC had prejudiced the Democratic Primary in favor of Hillary Clinton. This reinforced the view, already advocated by some on the far left of the party, that the system was rigged against their candidate Bernie Sanders.
The hack on the electoral computers achieves a similar function. Republican Nominee Donald Trump has for months been warning that the election could be rigged, and even started to organize “election observers” to ensure that there was no tampering at polling stations.
There were previously few reports of electoral fraud, but the Russian hack confirms that it is possible on a large scale, and gives credibility to those who already feared that it could happen. Combined with fake conservative accounts increasing the coverage of these stories on news websites through comments and shares, confidence in the electoral process is tarnished.
It would not be surprising if on election day ‘irregularities’ at polling stations, highlighted by Trump’s election observers, are given disproportionate attention by Kremlin-affiliated news organizations Russia Today and Sputnik International, amplified by the Olginauts. This precise tactic was carried out in the United Kingdom during the Scottish independence referendum. When it became clear that the Scottish Nationalists had lost the vote to leave Britain, Russian ‘electoral observers’ began to cite irregularities in the count, and the story ran on Russia Today . Most people in Scotland did not believe these reports, but for those who already thought there might be an “establishment stitch up” it confirmed their fears. Russian officials are still cited in the Scottish press on the subject.
All of this raises the question of what is to be done. It goes without saying that the intelligence services must be vigilant to ensure that the vote is not tampered with, but a purely security-minded response could be counter- productive. The FBI can reassure everyone that Russia did not meddle with the vote, but if the point of Russia’s hack was to show that manipulation of the ballot was possible, then such reassurances will not convince those who believe that the system is rigged from within. That Trump is applauded by a significant portion of the American electorate when he makes such claims indicates that there is a broader problem of trust, which Russian propaganda is exploiting, and magnifying, but did not create.
Nor does it seem likely that challenging Russian propaganda directly will reach out to those who have lost faith in the electoral process. Evidence from Eastern Europe suggests that challenging propaganda narratives directly can legitimize them. Maxim Eristavi, founder of the Russian and English newsrooms at Ukraine’s Hromadske, notes how “unfortunately for so many news organizations what they do is just follow what Russia says and try to fact- check it or to produce a counter-story.”
Eristavi argues that this approach both legitimizes the idea that there is “another side to the story” that isn’t being told, and risks speaking to an echo chamber. “There is a lot of empirical evidence showing that propaganda does not convince people to change their mind. Propaganda destroys the middle ground, so you lose the room for debate and for building bridges and then you can enter the area to manipulate opinions in a way that wouldn’t be possible if you had a civilized debate.”
In Ukraine where society is bitterly divided, Eristavi has worked to try and bridge the gap between communities, and to rebuild trust with Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine, by pioneering independent reporting that addresses their concerns. There is evidence to suggest that his approach is working, as Hromadske has built up audiences across Ukraine, and in Russia itself. It also provides an example of what can be achieved by reaching out to disillusioned communities.
Trust in institutions in the United States is far higher than in Ukraine, but among particular constituencies it is waning , fuelled by the collapse of local reporting, and a growing distance between communities and sources of information, as highlighted by the Pew Research Center. Efforts to address propaganda are likely to be most effective if they address the underlying concerns within these communities that make them likely to believe propaganda in the first place. Without these steps, the effectiveness of Russia’s propaganda efforts is likely to grow.
“Ultimately you would hope,” said Pomeranzev, “that Russian propaganda prompts us to build a stronger democracy.”