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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?