Progressives pointing to Russian hacking as the reason Donald Trump won in November’s election instead of looking internally at their own policies and strategies. Conservatives characterize concerns over it as liberal whining and one of the many excuses they’ve used to justify losing. The quick dismissal is simply because their guy who won. Rest assured, the roles would be reversed if the results were different. Donald Trump even said as much on the stump during his campaign. So who is right? Let’s set aside partisan hand-wringing for a moment and explain what the heck is going on with this Russian hacking.
What Are We Even Talking About?
This may be the single source of confusion surrounding this issue. Dive into Twitter hashtags on the issue, and you can see the confusion as people talk past each other. When media writes or utters “Russia hacking,” Americans are conflating two very different things.
There are two parts to this story, and one is far more compelling than the other. The first is the accusation that Russia actively engaged in influencing election through the release of stolen emails and the spread of what is being labeled “fake news.” The belief is that Russia preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton and did whatever they could to confuse voters by spreading misinformation about one to the benefit of the other. The Podesta emails were distributed by WikiLeaks and the Russians are accused of actively promoting other false news.
The other charge is that state-sponsored hackers conducted a cyber attack on electronic voting machines and altered votes. Fears about this ran deep during the campaign, ironically more from the right than the left. On Election Day, and even before it, there were accounts of problems with these machines, further feeding the frenzy over their reliability. Let’s start the discussion there.
Voting Machines in the Information Age
Democratically electing our leaders is the bedrock that the foundation of the American republic is built on (yes, I know the Electoral College elects the president, but they rarely go against the will of the people in their state). We go to the polls under the assumption that our vote will be counted accurately. When the seeds of doubt are sewn, the very fabric of America is under threat of being ripped apart.
“Unsubstantiated assertions that Russia actually manipulated the vote tally are themselves dangerous.” – Joshua A. Douglas, CNN
The problem with this discussion is that there is no evidence any foreign power, including Russia, intruded in any voting apparatus. According to CNN, “the Clinton campaign and the Obama administration have both said that they do not have any evidence that Russia hacked voting machines or altered voting technology. A federal judge, in rejecting Jill Stein’s lawsuit seeking a statewide recount in Pennsylvania, also pointed to a lack of evidence of election machine hacking.” The Obama administration was adamant that, despite Russian attempts to undermine the presidential election, it concluded that the results “accurately reflect the will of the American people.”
Jill Stein’s Recount & Hacking Fears
That didn’t stop places like the Washington Post from running articles discussing how untrustworthy our system is, like this one. Another article from July speculates about election Armageddon in light of the DNC hacked emails scandal. Opportunists were quick to pick up on the narrative about possible Russian hacking. Enter Jill Stein and the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
“We’re going to the three states that are most likely to show hacking because they had razor-thin margins, because they have corrupt voting machines… In Wisconsin they use voting machines that are illegal to use in California because they are so tamper-friendly. They are wide open, they’re an invitation to tampering,” Stein explained to the FOX Business Network’s Kennedy.
She managed to raise millions of dollars (and her public profile – read To Recount or Not to Recount) only to yield a recount in Wisconsin that increased Trump’s lead in the state and judges tossing out the others due to lack of evidence.
Despite Stein’s concerns, no evidence has surfaced indicating any direct attack on voting infrastructure, although both the CIA and broader intelligence community have stated they believe Russia did conduct hacking operations with the aim of influencing the election. – The Verge
Proponents of the recount argue that it gave validity to the results, but such statements are questionable at best so long as we confuse what we mean by “Russian hacking.”
A Failure in Cyber Security
If we stick to the assertion that hacking means not voting machines, but computer systems like the DNC and campaign manager John Podesta’s emails as an attempt to influence the election, then there is cause for some alarm.
According to CNN in a very useful article by Jeremy Diamond:
The US government publicly announced in October that it was “confident” Russia orchestrated the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations of the Democratic Party. Those hacks resulted in the public release of thousands of stolen emails, many of which included damaging revelations about the Democratic Party and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the party’s nominee.
I can go on for pages as to how cyber security professionals in our intelligence agencies and outside experts have reached their conclusion about Russian complicity. I can go on for ten more as to why the various agencies don’t agree with each others’ conclusions. Instead, I will list some sources here for your perusal:
The Public Evidence – Arstechnica
What We Do and Don’t Know (as of Dec 12th) – NPR
Here’s the Evidence – TIME
So what is the reaction to alleged Russian hacking by our political leaders? Harry Reid says Trump was in on it. Trump himself has attacked the CIA for their conclusions. Obama shrugged the whole thing off until Hillary Clinton lost. In this situation, our leaders and former leaders are either opportunists, politically-motivated ignoramuses, or just plain wrong. All of them are, and that is a problem, because this affects every American.
They Hacked Voters, Not the Systems
You’ve been hacked. I don’t mean your email or your credit card information. I mean you. Russia didn’t need to conduct a brute force attack on a voting machine to flip ballots. Why bother? They helped convince the American public to do it for them, and they succeeded. Was it enough to change the result? We may never know. Passions ran deep on both sides.
The nation can never quantify just how much the Podesta and DNC leaks played into voters’ decisions. The enthusiasm gap between Clinton and Trump supporters was substantial. The Rust Belt has becoming redder for years now and Trump just hastened that trend, according to the Washington Post. His campaign message spoke to disgruntled middle and lower-middle class workers in the areas of the country that feel they have been left behind under President Obama’s economic recovery.
But make no mistake that Russian hacking and subsequent leaked emails and false news had an effect on the American people and media coverage throughout the election. Russian hacking is nothing more than a misnomer for what their actions really were: cyberinfluence. They sought to target voters’ decision-making processes through the deliberate spread of stolen private, and/or spread of false information. At least on some level, it worked.
Cyberinfluence and We the People
Russia has done to us something I’m willing the CIA has done to other nations for decades (anyone willing to bet against me on that?) They didn’t exploit our process – they exploited us. We can have all the Congressional hearings we want, but the fact remains, we the people allowed it to happen.
We’ve become cheerleaders and riders of political bandwagons instead of thoughtful citizens. Instead of carefully reading and analyzing the sources of the news we consume, we retweet headlines and circulate garbage news on Facebook (Read Fake News) just because we want it to be true, not because it is.
The only real defense against cyberinfluence without curtailing free speech is an educated, informed, and engaged citizenry. Despite the massive
coverage this recent election and primary season garnered, I’m not sure a majority of our fellow citizens meet all three of those criteria (Read Do We Deserve Our Democracy). I’m certain a partisan media is not helping to solve the problem.
Be informed. Stay engaged. Think before you share on social media. Read the story, not the headline. Evaluate the source of the information. That’s how you combat fake news and how you stop a foreign power from hijacking your vote.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about Russian hacking. Please comment below. Am I right, or did I miss something?