Our response to Russian election interference only exposes our crippling cultural malaise which opened the door for it. Both real and still alleged Russian operations exploited pre-existing, glaring fissures created by decades of irresponsible U.S. domestic politics.
We have ourselves to blame for continued political dysfunction and incredible danger:
◼︎ We lack reforms to protect Americans from future manipulation and safeguard electoral infrastructure. As said here before, campaign finance reform is now a national security and counter-intelligence priority;
◼︎ We accept a closed, secret legal investigation by Mueller as a substitute for authoritative, consensual political leadership;
◼︎ We as a society accept and reward a social media-led Russia mob populism exploited by charlatans and self-promoters pushing falsehood, rumor and baseless slander;
◼︎ US media resolutely refuses to conduct an after-action review of its activities aiding Russian active measures for reform;
◼︎ We still – from across the political spectrum – blame Russians for our long-standing asymmetric, divisive politics of race, religious authoritarianism and artificial existentialism. We still do not see the American role in a global re-litigation of Modernity vs. Reaction. This, rather than nationalism, delineates our global political, cultural and military environment today. The so-called American mainstream 2017 forgot that pluralistic, liberal democracy, individual rights and empiricism constitute an actual ideology – with historic foes.
If you are reading this, likely you accept Russian State-directed interference in our elections: Kremlin-directed (and Putin-sanctioned) operations involving military intelligence (GRU) and other intelligence entities. We still don’t know the full scope of such State-directed activities and other, affiliated or even independent Russian actions. “Russia” can and does mean different things.
Moreover, American collusion with Russians of either category is also unknown. This is potentially broader than just via the Trump campaign itself but technically independent yet pro-Russia/anti-Clinton groups and individuals. We have warned here many times at SLS 1.0 and the current 2.0 about the U.S. French 1914-40 malaise and latent racial and authoritarian threat to liberal democratic politics. Those affiliations now supersede geographic nationalism. Dark money and today’s technology pose unprecedented challenges to American institutions and media platforms.
Actual Russian goal(s) at specific times throughout 2016 are not yet clear. Battleground states appear targeted as well as electorally settled states. Russian false online personas and groups labored exceedingly hard to appear authentic for their targeted American audiences. In the case of Black Lives Matter and U.S.veteran false fronts, the Russians exhaustively mimicked language, slang, and perspectives for prolonged periods before slipping in actual campaign-related rhetoric. The attempt to insinuate into accepted, trusted discourse painstaking.
We accept determinations that Russian initial goals likely were to exacerbate American discord and cynicism. Mark Warner phrased it as suppressing voter turnout and eroding faith in democratic institutions. Active Russian State-directed support for Trump’s candidacy (such as the DNC email release) appear to be tactical responses to American electoral shifts. We may never get a fully detailed timeline of Russian activity (State and otherwise).
We now know that Silicon Valley’s initial denials of involvement are false: Facebook, Twitter, Google et al. now concede they were used and targeted by Russians – State-directed or otherwise. Silicon Valley is silent on the scope of Russian manipulation because none of them know. Silicon Valley lacks the oversight mechanisms to identify potential Russian actors, cut outs, affiliates, dark money, etc. U.S. government help would be essential to make a meaningful effort.
The initial reported Russian expenditures are extremely modest by US campaign standards – circa $100,000 (some came after the election, too). Yet small sums grant massive reach. For example, initial research on the actual Facebook ads bought by Russian Internet Research Ltd. so-called troll farm gained as many as 1 billion impressions.
Many Americans may have been stunned to learn that Facebook permitted anonymous, automated advertising based on specific, incendiary key-words such as “jew hater”, etc. Russians used Facebook and Google to send Americans targets messages so that neighbors could receive vastly different messaging and emotional manipulation. US political campaigns have long known about this unsupervised, unregulated automated ad buying. Beyond learning how the Russians used these tools, it’s vital that these and other dark practices be subject to public scrutiny. Silicon Valley’s irresponsibility justifiably raises questions whether some form of oversight or regulation might be appropriate.
Finally, US media resolutely refuse to accept its role in promoting Russia’s special operations. The systematic failure across prestige media like The New York Times, Washington Post, to cable networks and tactical gossip websites like Politico, etc. mandates careful review. The purpose is not recrimination but to ensure that future journalism malpractice does not re-occur. The current stance, represented by prominent reporters for The New York Times (granted, newly minted from the NY Post and Politico) is to deny responsibility and blame Clinton. We see no indication that US media introduced new control processes since 2016.
Media failings aside, a healthy political system would conduct a unified investigation of Russian activities. Ideally, a congressional investigation would precede special counsel legal work. Iran Contra is the last such major example. Lessons learned from that and the 9/11 Commission could – and should have – informed substantive congressional action.
SSCI and HPSCI failed as intended by GOP leadership. Burr (at first, reluctantly) ceased stonewalling SSCI action; HPSCI remains a car wreck. Both are oversight committees and lack the professional investigating staff and bandwidth necessary for this undertaking. Grassley’s Judiciary is an afterthought. By contrast, the GOP had 8 committees investigating Benghazi with over 140 investigators, holding 32 public hearings.
A presidency determined to destroy faith in objective facts and consensual reality exacerbates GOP congressional abdication. We are left with just Robert Mueller’s secret legal proceedings. A legal proceeding, however, is not a counter-intelligence investigation. It’s also not an adequate substitute for political discourse and considered, vital reforms.
Congressional abdication empowers a vacuum filled by a cartoonish, social-media driven mob mentality of Russia paranoia and conspiracy theories. Russia since 2014 minted many putative Western experts with actually little real substantive expertise. Intensity of conviction is first and foremost. This celebration of ignorance is a cacophony for everyone from Hollywood directors to British chick lit authors. It bestows absurd mantles of authority: the latter online charlatan published by the New York Times. Russia is not doing this to us; we do it to ourselves. Perhaps we prove Putin’s ‘they treat everyone like rats in a cage’ thesis inadvertently.
Russia is among the first movers seeking to influence American politics and Silicon Valley’s aggregated audiences. They will not be the last. We should expect other countries, sub-national groups, insurgencies, special interests and other trans-national actors (including corporations) to do the same. Are we ready? Can the Silicon Valley online model withstand that? Should it?
So far, we have seen a lot of heat and very little light. We must act for posterity.
* It’s a madhouse! [/chuckheston – who was a delightful dinner companion at Oxford]