If you were a candidate and Russian interference was helping your campaign, would you react with outrage, out of a patriotic duty to national security, or would you deny it was happening?
That question, in a nutshell, explains why a Russian disinformation campaign using social media can be so effective. It feeds into the built-in philosophical biases a lot of Americans already have. It makes any government agency investigating interference suspect in the minds of many. The same can be said for media outlets reporting on the evidence.
In short, it appears to be a near foolproof way to turn Americans against each other and sow a lack of trust in democratic institutions.
All of which should give us pause as the fight for control of Congress heats up this year.
I’ve written before about how difficult it would be to actually hack into election-related computers and change the outcome. U.S. elections are a wonderful collection of 3,143 separate processes in counties, boroughs, independent cities and other jurisdictions, each with its own methods and procedures.
A determined hacker might be able to select and focus on a few key strategic places where the outcome could have a big impact on a swing state, but then he or she would face the task of compromising precinct judges, people who know how to reprogram computers without being detected and post-election auditors who examine paper trails and match them against machine results.
It’s much easier to breed suspicions and spread false rumors.
Which isn’t to say people have abandoned efforts to hack their way in. On Wednesday, I spoke with Justin Lee, Utah’s elections director. “People are constantly attacking the databases,” he said. That would be databases that contain the names of Utah’s registered voters. “We have a team of people that constantly monitors that.”
Otherwise, the electronic voting machines in use in Utah are not connected to the internet. A hacker would have to attack them separately — several at each polling place — in a direct, hands-on way and not online, which Lee offers “would be difficult to do from across the ocean.”
But when I ask him about keeping organized internet trolls from influencing voters through social media, he comes up short. “I’m not sure how we would go about doing that.”
He suggests voters go to legitimate websites, including vote.utah.gov, to get campaign information they can trust.
Which sounds so unlike the way people form opinions in 2018.
On Tuesday, the leaders of six U.S. intelligence agencies told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia is targeting the 2018 elections.
"We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokesmen and other means to influence, to try to build on its wide range of operations and exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," CNN quoted Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats saying. "There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations."
Also on Tuesday, NBC News published the results of its investigation into the 2,752 accounts Twitter identified as being linked to the Kremlin. The news agency found that accounts set up to impersonate real Americans resulted in 2.1 million retweets and almost 1.9 million favorites. These varied from messages spreading fears of crimes committed by Islamic refugees to opinions about which candidate won presidential debates.
Some of these spread messages casting doubt on long-cherished freedoms, such as one that said, “#Brussels Let’s close all mosques! #freespeech is overrated! #IslamKills”30 comments on this story
NBC quoted former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul as saying Russians have for many years felt they were on the defensive as Americans tried to spread messages about the value of free markets and democracy.
“And they’re now on the offensive,” he said.
They also have hit on an effective strategy.
It doesn’t help that President Trump, the apparent beneficiary of much of this campaign in 2016, insists it isn’t real. It doesn’t help that politics precludes the nation from having a rational discussion about this.
It also doesn’t help that the U.S. can’t retaliate in kind. Russia already does a good job of rigging its own elections.