No matter what your politics, no matter how President Donald Trump fares, the most unnerving development in the Russia-Trump investigations is how easily a hostile foreign power has interfered with American politics and even U.S. life.
The multiple investigations have made one thing clear: The Kremlin sought to influence American society in ways we have not seen since the height of the Cold War.
The Russians, we are learning, tried to help Republican Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton last year. They may have hacked into 21 state election systems during last year’s presidential election, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
This week, we learned that Russian agents disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million American Facebook users, seeking to sow discord on Black Lives Matter, Ferguson, Islamophobia and other hot-button topics. In effect, the Russians have turned the iPhone in your hand into an information weapon.
“It’s very important that we understand that this wasn’t just about being for one candidate and against the other,” Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me.
“This was more fundamentally designed to tear at the fabric of our society,” Schiff said. “And we are not alone in this. They have undertaken the same kind of measures in Europe and elsewhere.”
“It’s an assault on the whole idea of liberal democracy,” Schiff said. “I think they have been very successful. They view our divisions as a great vulnerability for us. And they are right, it is a great vulnerability. We need to be mindful of that. We need to figure out our own strategy to overcome these divisions.”
In fact, Schiff goes as far as to say the Russians have had “catastrophic success” in creating chaos in our society.
Schiff was in the Triangle this week to speak at Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy and help Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill kick off his re-election effort.
The alarms are coming from Republicans too, as well as from the intelligence community.
“You can’t walk away from this and believe Russia’s not currently active in trying to create chaos in our election process,” Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has been investigating Russian interference, said earlier this month. “The overall theme of the Russian involvement was to create chaos at every level.”
Price, the ranking Democrat on the House Democracy Partnership, a bipartisan congressional group that works with emerging democratic countries, has seen many countries, especially those within Russia’s orbit, face nearly “unremitting hostility” from Russian tactics.
The end game, said Price, is to undermine “self-determination” in those countries.
In recent years, the Russian effort has spread across Western Europe, often trying to stir up ethnic backlash against immigrant groups. Russia reportedly was active in the French elections earlier this year.
European countries have been working on how to deal with the Russian threat – which some describe as “weaponizing information.”
Sweden has launched a nationwide school program to teach students how to identify Russian propaganda, according to The Washington Post. In Lithuania, 100 citizen cyber-sleuths dubbed “elves” are working to counter Russian cyber-propaganda.
In Brussels, a European Union task force has identified 2,000 examples of false stories in 18 languages that have Russian earmarks, according to The Post.
Russian disinformation efforts will not be easy to stop. The Kremlin uses multiple technology platforms, including disseminating inflammatory posts reaching 126 million Facebook users, publishing more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploading more than 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service, the companies told congressional committees this week. Facebook said the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy Russian company with links to the Kremlin, posted 80,000 pieces of divisive content.
What makes cyber-warfare so attractive, said Schiff, a former prosecutor, is that the Kremlin always has plausible deniability because a third party actually carries out the interventions.
As a result of the Russian effort, Schiff worries that other countries are likely to borrow its tactics. What is to stop Pakistan and India from spreading false rumors about each other on social media, for example, Schiff said.
Earlier this year, a cyber-attack may have helped precipitate a crisis in Qatar when the Qatar News Agency, the official news agency, was hacked. A fictitious report was run claiming the emir of Qatar had criticized the United States while praising Iran and Hamas, the Palestinian group. Several countries in the region have severed ties with Qatar.
“There is no easy patch for this,” said Schiff. “The Russians are a very capable cyber-actor. If they want to get into the DNC (Democratic National Committee) in 2020, they get in. If they want to get into the RNC (Republican National Committee), they’ll get in there too.”
“What will protect us more than anything,” Schiff said, “is to forge a national and bipartisan consensus: When a foreign power meddles in our affairs we all reject it, no matter who it helps or who it hurts. That is the only thing that can really protect us.”
Rob Christensen: 919-829-4532; firstname.lastname@example.org