As we all know by now, the Russian government launched a cyberattack against the United States during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. Yet the assault was followed by neither a declaration of war nor a public confrontation between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. No nuclear attacks were threatened. Instead, Trump has seemed to do everything in his power to stay on good terms with the Russian leader.
More cyberattacks should be expected — during the 2020 election and beyond — from Russia and other countries. Hacking is now standard practice in our age of digital warfare.
Not all attacks are the same, of course. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans, led to two wars (in Afghanistan and Iraq) — the effects of which are still being felt today — and radically changed our way of life. Every day we take steps to prevent another such terrorist attack. Our response to cyberattacks, the power of which isn’t measured in human casualties, has been very different. We tolerate them and expect them to occur with some frequency. After all, who hasn’t been hacked, seen their computer infected by a virus or had their personal data stolen? Governments, like people, assume there’s no such thing as total privacy or security in the digital world.
One of the most important and damaging findings of special counsel Robert Mueller’s recent report is that the Russians interfered in the last U.S. presidential election specifically to benefit Trump and undermine his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Through the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin conducted “a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States,” the report says. The Russian operation, which was started as early as 2014, continued to evolve and by 2016 “favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton.”
What did the Russians do to achieve their goals? First, they bought “political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities.” Secondly, they “hacked into the Clinton campaign and distributed stolen material that was detrimental to it” through the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. This agency “stole hundreds of thousands of documents” from the email accounts of Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and other employees and volunteers. These documents were released through WikiLeaks and fake sites like DCLeaks. Finally, there were multiple contacts between the Russians and members of the Trump campaign.
Mueller’s report clearly states that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” But at the end of the day, Trump benefited from this interference.
To what extent? We’ll never know. There’s no way to quantify precisely how many extra votes Trump might have won or Clinton lost as a result of Russia’s meddling. How many tweets or Facebook posts do people have to read before they change their minds about a candidate? Perhaps nobody ever changes their mind, and we only use social media to reaffirm our thoughts and prejudices.
We live in a world riddled with fake news, where confusion is pandemic. A new theory suggests that, in the midst of such chaos, reporters use stories and narratives in a vain attempt to make sense of an ultimately inexplicable world. Rather than spin stories, the theorists suggest, journalists should focus on reporting data and trends.
One of the problems with Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election is that the story is simply too good, stocked as it is with captivating heroes and villains and unparalleled international espionage. The Russian government, for one, has denied the conclusions of the Mueller report and claims it never interfered in the election.
If we start from the premise that the primary goal of every government is its own survival, it follows that it will spy on, and initiate cyberattacks against, its enemies whenever it can. And one good hacker — whether based in Washington, Moscow, Caracas or Pyongyang — can threaten any government or multinational corporation anywhere in the world.
Russia’s crass intervention in the 2016 U.S. election was therefore just the front line in the latest global war — one that employs very different methods from the wars we’ve known in the past.