United States intelligence agencies released a “worldwide threat assessment” that asserted Russia will potentially target the 2018 midterm elections.
The “assessment” [PDF] suggested Russia, “at minimum,” will “continue [to use] propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.”
It was fully embraced by both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which held a hearing with the heads of the national security apparatus. But Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner was one of the most fervent in his embrace of this announcement.
Though acknowledging there are “certain questions” that “remain with respect to the true extent of Russia interference in the 2016 election,” he declared, “Russia engaged in a coordinated attack to undermine our democracy.” They expanded into a “new area” and “utilized social media platforms to push and spread misinformation at an unprecedented scale.”
“There have been some, aided and abetted by Russian internet bots and trolls, who’ve attacked the basic integrity of the FBI and Justice Department,” Warner added. “This is a dangerous trend. This campaign of innuendo and misinformation should alarm all of us regardless of our partisan affiliation.”
Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, said, “We need to inform the American public that this is going to happen, that this is real, and the resilience needed for us to stand up and say we’re not going to allow some Russian to tell us how to vote, how we ought to run our country. And I think there ought to be a national cry for that.”
Press in the United States universally repeated the feverish statements without bothering to offer any skepticism as to whether Russia could achieve any success in impacting the midterm elections.
The result is a pernicious narrative that affords government agencies, politicians, tech companies, think tanks, and media commentators the ability to dismiss any dissent as the product of Russian influence.
Undoubtedly, the Russian government employs operatives for the purpose of spreading pro-Kremlin propaganda. The United States government does this too.
To use the language of the national security apparatus, the U.S., Russia, and China are each interested in wielding “instruments of national power—including information and cyber—to shape societies and markets, international rules and institutions, and international hot spots to their advantage.”
It is not what “adversaries” or “malign actors” do but what any country bent on geopolitical dominance will do to project their influence and power.
The U.S. has an officially sanctioned propaganda organization that is supposed to counter Russian influence as part of its mission. That organization is called the Global Engagement Center (GEC).
The GEC was established by President Barack Obama through an executive order in March 2016 to counter propaganda from the Islamic State. The bipartisan Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act gave the GEC a mandate to focus on state-sponsored propaganda. And when the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 was signed by Obama, the GEC was given a mandate to combat Russian influence.
This center seems setup as a defensive mechanism to protect democratic institutions from being undermined. But one of the functions [PDF] of GEC includes developing an disseminating “fact-based narratives and analysis to counter propaganda and disinformation directed at the United States and United States allies and partner nations.”
It may even go a step further and “expose and refute foreign misinformation and disinformation and proactively promote fact-based narratives and policies to audiences outside the United States.” And it may attempt to “identify the countries and populations most susceptible to propaganda and disinformation.”
That definitely suggests the GEC will engage in its own U.S. influence operations to make it more difficult for Russian bots and trolls to popularize hashtags that not only spread false information but also push narratives that clash with the agenda of the U.S. government.
To be clear, U.S. intelligence agencies do not assert Russia will target state and local election infrastructure and successfully affect the outcome of any races by changing tallies. There has never been any evidence that this happened in 2016 nor has any intelligence official claimed this happened. So as much as systems may be vulnerable to hacking, authorities are well aware and in a position to take steps to ensure individuals from any country or organization cannot tamper with results.
What then is the purpose of splashing all over U.S. media the idea that Russia will target the 2018 midterm elections? What are U.S. citizens supposed to do to be “resilient” and guard against this perceived threat?
The answer would seem to be U.S. intelligence agencies want Americans to be skeptical of any and all discontent.
For example, it was reported Russian trolls posed as Americans and “made payments to genuine activists in the U.S. to help fund protest movements on socially divisive issues.” The trolls promoted Black Lives Matter and outrage against police brutality.
Black Lives Matter and an array of Black Lives Matter-inspired hashtags were and still are not the product of the Russian government. The movement sprouted in response to systemic racism and police violence. But the notion that Russian trolls may be amplifying Black Lives Matter protests may cause one to doubt the genuine nature of the movement.
Russian trolls promote right-wing hashtags, like #ReleasetheMemo, as well as so-called “deep state” hashtags. Does that mean all the people who wanted Trump to release a completely bogus memo from Rep. Devin Nunes were Russian trolls?
The “deep state” has been studied and analyzed by academics and historians for decades, whether they use that particular phrase in their work. It involves the continuity of government among security agencies and the idea that it doesn’t matter who is president because there is a set framework and agenda for advancing American power that will not change. Career officials will engage in any means to protect this agenda from politics. So are all the people talking about the “deep state” Russian trolls?
None of the examples involve subjects that would not be discussed among pockets of the U.S. population if Russia had not tried to influence social media. Citizens still would have protested and expressed rage. In fact, what no one can articulate is what the impact such efforts had on any events or political outcomes. It is not like the memo was not going to be released, and Russian trolls decisively changed the course of history.
The Russian government did not impact the outcome of the 2016 Election. It will not impact the outcome of any 2018 midterm elections. However, it will provide politicians with a convenient scapegoat in contentious primaries and during political turmoil.
Since the U.S. has been in a cycle of turmoil since Trump’s election, citizens must be resilient against U.S. officials, politicians, media commentators, and think tanks that appoint themselves as “experts” on what is and is not Russian propaganda. These actors will seek to limit democracy and control debate, but the confines should not be limited because the U.S. and Russia are in a perpetual war over influence in the world.