Want to understand Russian cyberwarfare? Instead of focusing on the Democratic National Committee emails, go back to 2015 and read Adrian Chen’s lengthy exposé, The Agency, published in the New York Times magazine. He documents trolling, disinformation, hoaxes, and the whole spectrum of information warfare.
Better yet, pay attention to the entire spectrum of information warfare. Cyber attacks come from state players such as Russia, China, and the United States. Domestic political disinformation — from Occupy Democrats on the left to Breitbart on the right — plays a big role in destroying public trust in anyone, everyone, and all reporting. Besides governmental and political players, private, for-profit actors spew scandal just to make a buck, as do a plethora of phony news producers.
Is Russia doing bad things? Beyond a doubt. What I’m calling information warfare includes spreading information and misinformation, whether that’s called propaganda or fake news. Cyberwarfare is a broader category, including not only information warfare, but also the kinds of direct attacks on infrastructure described in the 2015 exposé by Adrian Chen, and recently summarized in The Atlantic:
“Hackers believed to be from Russia have accessed computers and servers belonging to government and political parties in rival countries. In some cases, such as in the DNC or WADA hack, those hacks resulted in the leak of information on websites such as WikiLeaks. In other cases, the attacks focused on national infrastructure: In Ukraine, for instance, according to Wired, hackers targeted the power grid; they then attacked the telephone service so customers couldn’t call to report the outages. When they hit the NSA, hackers posted the agency’s ‘cyber-weapons’ to file-sharing sites, according to Esquire. The hackers don’t just target states and institutions. Frequently, individuals are caught up, as well. On December 9, the Times reported that suspected Russian hackers targeted critics of the country’s government who live overseas by posting child porn on their computers.”
Russia is not alone: the United States also hacks friends, allies and enemies. This does not excuse Russia, but it is crucial context to keep in mind.
Information warfare aims to destroy trust and to undermine the very concept of truth. Writing in The New Yorker in July, Adrian Chen explained:
“The real effect, the Russian activists told me, was not to brainwash readers but to overwhelm social media with a flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the Internet as a democratic space. One activist recalled that a favorite tactic of the opposition was to make anti-Putin hashtags trend on Twitter. Then Kremlin trolls discovered how to make pro-Putin hashtags trend, and the symbolic nature of the action was killed. ‘The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it,’ the opposition activist Leonid Volkov told me.”
That certainly sounds a lot like the U.S. political arena right now: “so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it.”
Focusing on Russia and on the election does not do anything to deal with the weasel moving to Washington right now, in January 2017. Bad as it was, the election is over. Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton by almost three million more votes. He won in the electoral college, but not by the landslide he claims. His margin was in the lowest quarter of all electoral college margins. It’s tempting to obsess about the election, about what went wrong, about all the lies, but it’s time to move on.
This week’s battles include hearings on nine Trump Cabinet nominees, as well as Senate votes on repealing the Affordable Care Act. The nominees are:
- Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the nominee for attorney general was turned down for a federal judgeship because of racist comments and actions and has consistently opposed voting rights and immigration.
- Rex Tillerson, the nominee for secretary of state, is the CEO of ExxonMobil and his nomination, writes Steve Coll in The New Yorker, “will certainly confirm the assumption of many people around the world that American power is best understood as a raw, neocolonial exercise in securing resources.”
- Betsy DeVos, the nominee for secretary of education, supports vouchers to enable parents to use public money to pay tuition at religious schools. In 2001, she “singled out education reform as a way to ‘advance God’s kingdom.’”
- Ben Carson for secretary of housing and urban development.
- Wilbur Ross for Commerce Secretary.
- Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) for CIA director.
- Retired General John Kelly for secretary of homeland security.
- Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis for secretary of defense.
- Elaine Chao for secretary of transportation.
The hearings are being pushed ahead before potential conflicts or ethics problems are reviewed by the Office of Governmental Ethics. In a letter to Senator Mitch McConnell, the head of the OGE wrote:
“More significantly, it has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings…. I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process.”
Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan – the chief weasels in Washington – pose a far greater threat to our country than the Russian bear. The battlefield now is in Congress, in state legislatures, and in the streets. Have you contacted your Senators and Representative yet?