After a Facebook user posted an old satirical Onion spoof on teachers, guns and the National Rifle Association as an expression of her political opinion on the gun control issue, one of her buddies on the social media platform lamented, “I can’t tell Onion headlines from NYT and WaPost ones any longer.”
In this case, the issue was the Parkland school tragedy, hardly the stuff of satire, but when it comes to digital literacy and political discourse in general, this exchange only illustrates a larger point, that some folks may need a crash course in just how to tell when they’re being played — by the Russians or anybody else.
At a recent Department of Homeland Security meeting on election security, Connecticut Secretary of State Denise Merrill put it this way: “The biggest threat seems to be from the American public believing false stories that were told out there during the last election.”
But let’s put the blame, at least in part, where it belongs. Russian fingerprints can be found on too many of the false memes and narratives that conned too many Americans and helped fuel one of the most divisive elections in memory.
Little red playbook
Last week’s indictments of 13 Russian nationals by special counsel Robert Mueller outlined chapter and verse how our cyber adversaries used new technology and social media to disrupt the 2016 presidential election and erode American social order, by spreading a steady diet of disinformation and propaganda through outlets from political media to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
We learned that neither Democrats nor Republicans, progressive nor conservative activists were spared the destructive attentions of the Russian troll factory that began its information warfare program in 2014 with a budget of more than a million dollars a month.
Unwitting Trump and Clinton backers were duped by Russians masquerading as American activists using sophisticated online personas and virtual private networks to create, in essence, a cyber false flag that not only misinformed the public and provoked voter outrage but actually impacted campaign events and activities.
When a pro-Trump rally and an anti-Trump protest headlined by Michael Moore were held on the same day in New York City days after the election, neither side knew that both events were the creatures of Russian information warfare.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reported in his announcement of the Mueller indictments that there was “no allegation that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity.” That is good news for both President Trump and the political process.
But it still leaves the country clearly vulnerable to more of the same from the Russians and other cyber criminals determined to use new technologies to undermine our elections and sow social discord of every kind.
There was a time when we had safeguards in place to protect the integrity of our electoral process from external interference. The Foreign Agents Registration Act and strict prohibitions on noncitizen campaign contributions, for example, were effective in defending our elections from undue outside influence.
But cybertechnology has dramatically changed our electoral environment with the potential to affect voting systems, ballot security, voter rolls and registration, and campaign communications, and equally sinister efforts to chip away at voters’ confidence in their own democracy.
While the Russians have a long history of attempting to influence our elections, it is a combination of a digitally unsophisticated electorate and new cyberwarfare technologies that puts our country and our democratic process at risk. While there is no evidence that hackers, Russian or otherwise, have managed to change election results, we do know that voting systems in 21 states were targeted by Russians for attack.
Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections
Tom Kellerman, a cybersecurity expert, told Fox News, “The endpoint security on most of those voting systems are outdated and can’t match up to the modern-day weaponry being created by the Russian cyber adversaries.”
Clearly, if we are to defeat the Russians on the cyber battlefield, the federal government and the states need to step up their game. Time is short, especially given government’s dismal track record of adopting new technologies quickly or effectively.
Still, it’s important to put Russia’s interference into perspective. Yes, they achieved a part of their mission by further tearing apart a country already bitterly divided by partisan politics, and so we should expect more of the same as we head into the 2018 and 2020 elections. But Rosenstein also stated, “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
There is no way to know definitively whether the Russians had any impact on the election results, but an objective analysis of postelection data indicates it is highly unlikely.
Our election night Winning the Issues, or WTI, survey asked voters to rank 20 issues by importance in terms of their vote decision. Republicans and independents ranked “allegations of Donald Trump and ties to Russia” 19th and 20th respectively while Democrats put the issue at 15th. These questions were asked on Election Day so respondents did not know the presidential outcome when answering.
Similarly, in our most recent WTI survey (Jan. 24-25), we asked voters to rank the importance of a series of issues and news stories on how they are likely to vote in this year’s congressional elections. Of the 17 options, “allegations of Donald Trump ties to Russia” came in dead last among Republicans and independents but ranked fifth for Democrats.
In a Twitter post late Friday, Rob Goldman, vice president of ads for Facebook, described the Russian disinformation campaign this way, “The main goal of the Russian propaganda and misinformation effort is to divide America by using our institutions, like free speech and social media, against us. It has stoked fear and hatred amongst Americans. It is working incredibly well. We are quite divided as a nation.”
I agree. We may have not yet lost the disinformation war or even the battle for voting system security, but the deep anger driving partisan politics in America today should concern everyone — Republicans, Democrats and the media.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.