Despite the acknowledged effort levied by the Kremlin to discredit Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for president, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that Russia’s attempt to find a friendlier administration under Trump has been met with failure. Although Donald Trump himself has not done an effective job of convincing the American people that he recognizes the threats posed by Russia’s hybrid warfare endeavors, America has continued to draw a relatively hard line against Russian aggression in the form of policy. Expanding European defenses, a prolonged presence in Syria, the expulsion of Russian diplomats and new sanctions have characterized America’s combined approach to Russia over the past year, even amid the sometimes confusing rhetoric coming from the head of the Executive Branch himself.
However, lawmakers on either side of the aisle are slowly coming to recognize that Russia’s effort is far broader than backing any single candidate in any single election: Russia’s effort to exert influence over the American people has a breadth of objectives, ranging from managing perceptions of third-party governments like Bashar al Assad’s Syrian regime to discrediting accusations of Russian violations of international law, and perhaps more importantly, sowing discord among the American people. The one facet of Russia’s influence efforts in the most recent presidential election that can be seen as an unequivocal success has been helping to deepen the divisions between the American public, exacerbating the damage caused by America’s recent love affair with political self-flagellation. Like the KGB initiative to convince the American people that the CIA was responsible for the assassination of President Kennedy – the Kremlin knows that don’t need to start the fires of self-destruction within the United States; they need only to stoke the flames.
“Some feel that we as a society are sitting in a burning room, calmly drinking a cup of coffee, telling ourselves, ‘This is fine.’ That’s not fine,” Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said this week. “We should no longer be talking about if the Russians attempted to interfere with American society. They’ve been doing it since the days of the Soviet Union, and they’re still doing it today.”
The idea that Russia’s efforts align with America’s conservative party is a calculated and intentional one. Russia’s influence campaign includes active efforts on both the far Right and Left of America’s political spectrum, but because most Americans cultivate nothing more than a headline-based understanding of the issue, many continue to see Russian influence as politically motivated. From Left-leaning media outlets, this narrative benefits their base: establishing this imaginary Russian alignment with American’s Republican party emboldens the Democratic base and may help to secure seats in the 2018 midterm elections — but it also does the nation a significant disservice. Conservatives, feeling attacked by coverage that asserts that their often sincere reasons for voting Trump were actually the result of Russians manipulating them grow increasingly defensive — prompting Right-leaning media outlets to dismiss some of the severity of the Russian influence effort as a means to coddle their own base. In effect, both Left and Right leading media outlets have offered only facets of the truth to their readers in favor of confirmation bias-based clicks. The reality of Russia’s influence campaign is that it’s a far longer con than one election cycle, and the goals extend well past removing some sanctions.
“Russian manipulation did not stop in 2016. After Election Day, the Russian government stepped on the gas … Today the automated accounts of the far left and far right extremes of the American political spectrum produce as many as 25-30 times the number of messages per day on average as genuine political accounts across the mainstream,” John Kelly, the CEO of the social media intelligence firm Graphika, told NPR. “The extremes are screaming while the majority whispers.”
On Wednesday, Facebook announced that they had identified a new concerted effort to manipulate America’s election cycle that they called “inauthentic” that carried some of the hallmarks of previous Russian endeavors. This new effort, it’s important to note, primarily included language aimed at engaging and emboldening America’s Left, rather than Right — potentially shining a national spotlight for the first time on the fact that Russia is not playing political favorites, they’re out to damage America’s societal structure.
It’s clear that whoever set up these accounts went to much greater lengths to obscure their true identities than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past. We believe this could be partly due to changes we’ve made over the last year to make this kind of abuse much harder. But security is not something that’s ever done. We face determined, well-funded adversaries who will never give up and are constantly changing tactics. It’s an arms race and we need to constantly improve too.”
The bit of good news to come of this revelation, however, is that Republicans and Democrats alike are finally started to speak up about the effort as a whole, rather than just the elements that reflect poorly on their opposing parties.
“Vladimir Putin is apparently determined to hijack Americans’ outrage against Donald Trump and his administration for his own purposes: weakening America and ensuring that his corrupt dictatorship can act with impunity around the world,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said of the news from Facebook, acknowledging that the newly uncovered effort appears similar enough to previous Russian efforts, and that the clearly seem to be operating on both sides of the political divide.
Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat out of Virginia and the senior member of his party in the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed that Russia is likely the culprit, and that their effort engages both Right and Left associated Americans, saying Wednesday’s news was “further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation.”
Worse still, Warner pointed out, is that Russia’s efforts seem to be far broader than even senior officials may be aware.
“They are effective. And they are cheap. For just pennies on the dollar, they can wreak havoc in our society and in our elections. And I’m concerned that even after 18 months of study, we are still only scratching the surface when it comes to Russia’s information warfare.”
While that may be bad news, there is a silver lining: Republicans and Democrats seem to be starting to do away with the party-based banter associated with this clearly external threat — and when Americans start seeing one another as allies in that fight, the response can be that much more effective.
Featured image: Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles as he visits the Kaliningrad Stadium after the 2018 soccer World Cup in Kaliningrad, Russia, Friday, July 20, 2018. | Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP