The first US election fought in cyberspace

Although US presidential campaigns have been hacked by foreign parties before, the 2016 election seems to be a new kind of contest. It is the first time I’m aware of when a foreign power, presumably Russia, has used its cyber capabilities to try to affect the election’s outcome. And to be sure, it’s not simply hacking, but the use of data and information to try to shape the discussion.

It’s not clear any Russian cyber effort for Trump has been decisive or pivotal. After all, outrage for the elites and so-called “free-trade” is real and legitimate.  See my diagnosis from 2009.

But there is an emerging view that cyber help from Russia has aided Trump to some degree– and this appears to be new.

Setting aside the problems created by Donald Trump’s nomination as Republican presidential candidate, there is a longer term question the US government, policy makers, politicians, judiciary must confront:

How does the US guarantee, protect and respect free speech at home if the message is being coordinated from abroad with the purpose of undermining the regular democratic process?

Allen Ginsburg: understood in Russia

How does the US defend this space, the social cyberspace of its election, from foreign intruders?

This is no small question.

Because if the 2016 election shows us one thing, it is that coordinated messaging by foreign governments to influence elections is just the tip of the iceberg. Foreign powers will seek to sway domestic politics in the US via the internet. It’s not just about Russia and Trump. Think Snowden’s drive (witting or otherwise) to radicalise the US tech community. Think about China’s messaging foreign media over its territorial claims.

As I write this, WikiLeaks seeks to marry (or muddle) genuine anger at elites in the US with a division within the Democrats that appears to support Russia’s position.

For the US, it must also consider how to defend free speech when it’s being used to undermine the institutions of democracy. It also points to an unacknowledged reality that has confronted the US for some time.

Geopolitical rivals, but especially Russia, see the internet as one more information space to control. Russia wants to shape the information space and if not ensure the thoughts of the public are moving in ways acceptable to the leaders, at least ensure the thoughts of dissenters and critics are drowned out.

Jackson Pollock – also understood


In fact, Russia’s leaders (but China’s too) find it confounding that the US would invent a realm where citizens can speak and interact with anonymity while criticising a government or regime.

The US simply doesn’t see this social media space as a place to defend along national lines.

At the same time, Russia’s elites are helped by the fact that they are keen readers of American culture today.

When one of Putin’s propaganda maestros was hit with US sanctions that blocked him from travel to the US, Vladislav Surkov famously said, “The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.”

Russia’s finest thinkers on the US aren’t locked into an ideological prism like in the old days of the Cold War. They know their way around the landscape of the US culture well – even from abroad. Even without visiting.

Grandmaster Flash, reinventing the use of records

I would argue that Russia’s information war strategists actually understand US-built social media’s use and possibilities far better than the technology’s inventors themselves.

This is no exaggeration: I would compare the Russian use of social media to the way early rappers repurposed vinyl records to “scratch” them and achieve entirely new musical possibilities.

For example, in the US, Americans view news or images or memes “going viral” as an organic, democratic expression of the crowd. The Russians – and they must be respected for this – have found ways to organize people and forces online to shape the flow of news, images or memes, in the process, setting the agenda to achieve political goals. Here is an example of the Russian use of the internet to achieve a political goal from way back in 2011.

Just think, they would have had five years to build on that domestic success. Five years lived awash in globalized American pop-culture to reference in their efforts today.

I hope to detail this more in a further post.

But for now, the big 21st century question remains: How does the US guarantee and protect and promote free speech at home if a message is being coordinated from abroad to damage the US?

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Pro-Russia trolls: people of the 21st century

In the early part of the 20th Century German photographer August Sander endeavored to document all of the social classes and professions that made up society. The impact of modernization on Germany at the time was disorienting and Sanders genuinely hoped to classify and make sense of the world he found himself in. His great unfinished work was called People of the 20th Century.

Sanders wasn’t the only one trying to make sense of the world emerging around him. German media, after World War I, was obsessed with documenting the new face of womanhood after World War I, as the new morality and reality of the Weimar Republic took hold. I don’t believe we’re in another Weimar Republic situation today, by no means – but I do believe the technological change, coupled with a pervasively weak economy and clouded prospects for jobs and livelihoods, is tremendously dislocating to citizens of the West. People are worried, angry and looking for answers. Now that we’re all seemingly connected to each other through the internet, that’s a source of trouble too.

A photo by August Sander

It leaves people searching for new ways in this world, new meanings, and explanations for the order of society, the economy, politics and the place of the individual.

It strikes me that now, in the early part of the 21st Century, we have a new kind of person, whose motivations and ways of expression over the internet are unique and distinct for this time. Some are paid workers of the Kremlin. Some identify with the pro-Slavic positions, but live outside of Russia. But others probably don’t even have the ethnic connection to Russia, at all.

Intriguingly, there are people who troll pro-Kremlin opinions for free and for their own purposes (either wittingly or unwittingly). They have to be seen as unique to our era, seeking to fill their days with meaning by posting abuse and ridicule and skepticism at positions, ideas, and figures that they, or those goading the trolls on, disagree with.

The irony is that they use US-made technology (Twitter, Facebook, etc) to tear down the US and its politicians. For those who aren’t paid trolls, they must see trolling as a source of meaning, the experience of online anonymous abuse against one cause or person presumably for a more just cause as a kind of world-ordering activity. They are truly a product of this time. A new kind of person of the 21st Century.

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