The political situation within the United States has become interesting, to say the very least. Our president is provoking Kim Jong Un via Twitter toward a nuclear confrontation, has interjected himself into a small conflict with LaVar Ball after he wasn’t thankful enough for getting his son out of a Chinese prison, and is the center of several sexual harassment allegations (much like the rest of the GOP as well). Of course, all of this is occurring against the backdrop of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into any connections that the Trump campaign may have had with Russia, including possible collusion during the campaign.
While all of these things are certainly important topics to pay attention to, I fear that we have become blind to another pressing issue that is happening right in front of us. Our very institutions of American democracy have been attacked, and continue to be assaulted on a daily basis. But I fear that we are becoming complacent and not taking this threat as seriously as we should be. Russia has, and continues to, undermine our nation through online attacks and disinformation campaigns, and we seem to be unwilling to even acknowledge this fact. The United States and Russia have entered a new stage of warfare, one that takes place not in battlefields but on social media. We are at war with Russia. And we’re losing, badly.
At this point, it is a foregone conclusion that Russia interfered with the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States. The declassified report by the US Intelligence communities outlines what Russia’s goals were and how they were achieved. We know that Russia-backed individuals engaged in a social media influence campaign to spread disinformation and create an artificial divide between Americans. In Congressional testimony, Facebook and Twitter confirmed that Russia spread significant disinformation and divisive content via their social networks, in a blatant attempt to hijack and undermine our democratic process.
It is also widely accepted that this is not the first time that Russia has engaged in such influence campaigns in order to interfere with events taking place in other nations. It is incredibly likely that similar social media campaigns were used in 2014 and 2015 regarding the Russian annexation of Crimea. According to The Daily Beast, Russian-backed Internet trolls spread false information online, and actively worked to get pro-Ukraine supporters removed from Facebook in order to prevent and limit their ability to organize and fight back.
There is also increasing evidence that Russia used similar tactics to interfere with the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, also known as ‘Brexit.’ By using an army of fake Twitter accounts, paid Facebook ads, and more, Russia is able to easily exert control over democratic processes occurring throughout the world and tip the scales of power in its favor. This is the first time that a nation has used such tactics to interfere with other nations, and as such we really aren’t equipped to discuss such actions, let alone counter them. My impression is that a lot of people see these activities happening via the Internet as entirely separate from the “real world” and don’t take them as seriously. However it is becoming more and more clear that the Internet is the real world and we need to start treating it as such. Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States amount to acts of war and we must consider them as such.
Perhaps even more importantly, however, we must not become complacent or naïvely believe that these actions will stop now that Trump has been elected. The US Intelligence Community’s report stated (emphasis mine):
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
They were obviously incredibly effective in achieving their goals of denigrating Hillary Clinton’s campaign and supporting Donald Trump. However their primary goal wasn’t just to get Trump elected, but it was to undermine public faith and create divisiveness among the American people. This process is still happening.
Roy Moore, who is running to be one of Alabama’s senators, has received significant flak in the news after allegations that he sexually assaulted a 14 year old girl when he was 32 years old. Since then, several other women have come forward with claims that Moore had sexually assaulted them as well, shrouding his campaign in controversy. Even Senator Mitch McConnell looked beyond party lines and called for Moore to drop out of the race. Especially the recent context of many Hollywood stars being accused of sexual misconduct as well, such issues have rightly come to the forefront of national attention. It has become an issue that nearly every American has been exposed to, and inevitably has an opinion on.
It would be foolish to think that this isn’t a topic that Russia would be eager to capitalize upon to further spread divisiveness.
Democratic Senator Al Franken has also been accused of sexual misconduct, which has added further complexity to this issue. He immediately apologized, which was accepted shortly thereafter. However, the issue still lived on in online space. Some Reddit users questioned the timing of the allegation, and wondered if it had been specifically planned–or even fabricated.
This varies greatly from the response that the allegations against Moore garnered. People underscored the importance of believing women when they make allegations of sexual misconduct; even Senator McConnell specifically mentioned that he believe the claims. However with Franken, many were questioning the validity of the claims, or attempting to downplay the significance of the claim. These are judgements that should be made in an actual court of law, not the court of public opinion. However, I believe that Russia may have attempted to spread some of these countering viewpoints and contributed to turning this into a liberal vs. conservative issue, rather than an actual discussion of sexual assault in America.
The Hamilton 68 Dashboard is a project that tracks the coordinated efforts and activities of several known Russian Twitter accounts, as well as activities by Russian media and propaganda. It is a way to see what narratives Russia is currently trying to push upon us at any given time. In the immediate aftermath of the Franken allegations, #alfranken and #frankenfondles were being heavily pushed by the Russian propaganda network on Twitter.
There is really no way to know how much of any online discussion is genuine American citizens talking with one another, and how much of it is artificially forced upon us by Russian trolls. And in that regard, Russia has already won. If we can no longer trust one another, it becomes increasingly difficult to trust our democratic processes as well. However, I do believe that we can fight back against this information campaign. Through healthy skepticism and critical thinking, we can have more meaningful online interactions and lessen the impact of the Russian influence campaign.
But that can only happen if we first acknowledge what is actually happening to our Republic.
We are under attack by Russia.
We are at war.