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The Banality of Information Warfare


Elizabeth Dwoskin, Craig Timberg and Adam Entous report on new revelations about Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.

Russian operatives set up an array of misleading Web sites and social media pages to identify American voters susceptible to propaganda, then used a powerful Facebook tool to repeatedly send them messages designed to influence their political behavior, say people familiar with the investigation into foreign meddling in the U.S. election.

The tactic resembles what American businesses and political campaigns have been doing in recent years to deliver messages to potentially interested people online. The Russians exploited this system by creating English-language sites and Facebook pages that closely mimicked those created by U.S. political activists.

The Web sites and Facebook pages displayed ads or other messages focused on such hot-button issues as illegal immigration, African American political activism and the rising prominence of Muslims in the United States. The Russian operatives then used a Facebook “retargeting” tool, called Custom Audiences, to send specific ads and messages to voters who had visited those sites, say people familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details from an ongoing investigation.

As the story repeatedly stresses, there’s nothing particularly complicated about any of this. Russia simply used existing advertising methods and tools; it did so to exacerbate social divisions and harm Clinton. We could just as easily describe an effort by the NRA or the RNC. Except that it was a foreign government intent on undermine American interests.

The report, if accurate, may forward the small, but growing, movement to treat internet behemoths, such as Facebook and Google, more like any other corporations. For me, it underscores the point that I’ve been making since last summer: even if we put aside questions of collusion, the fact remains that Moscow (correctly) judged that supporting Trump’s candidacy would weaken the United States at home and abroad.

So, it’s worth asking what makes the US vulnerable to these “wedge strategies.” The answer, ultimately, lies in polarization.

First, when party identification functions like an ethnic identity, partisans are much more likely to believe propaganda of this kind. After all, they’ve been conditioned by their own domestic partisan media. Yes, aspects of this dynamic are asymmetric. But it’s entirely possible that 4-8 years of Trump will render partisan polarization symmetric.

Second, it means that elites are more likely to privilege party over country. This is, after all, what McConnell and other GOP leaders did when the Obama Administration sought a united front in the face of mounting evidence of Russian interference.

“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting.

Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

On Sept. 22, two California Democrats — Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Adam B. Schiff — did what they couldn’t get the White House to do. They issued a statement making clear that they had learned from intelligence briefings that Russia was directing a campaign to undermine the election, but they stopped short of saying to what end.

A week later, McConnell and other congressional leaders issued a cautious statement that encouraged state election officials to ensure their networks were “secure from attack.” The release made no mention of Russia and emphasized that the lawmakers “would oppose any effort by the federal government” to encroach on the states’ authorities.

I stress these points because there’s a right way and a wrong way to have this debate. As I noted over on Twitter—in the context of Assange’s sudden swing to support Catalan independence—it’s important not to overstate Russian agency and influence. This serves the interests of both those demagogues who are trying to ride the anti-Russian train to fame and fortune and also those invested in denying the problem.

Russia’s measures are primarily opportunistic. Moscow tries to heighten existing fault lines to weaken, and delegitimate, western democracies. It caused neither Catalan nationalism, nor Madrid’s self-defeating political repression. Nor did it likely have much effect on the whole process. At the same time, what’s happening in Catalonia certainly serves its interests by creating yet another crisis of democracy within NATO and the European Union.

In the US case, given how close the election was, Moscow might have actually helped swing the outcome. But it’s going to be virtually impossible to prove that one way or another. So what we should care about, moving forward, are vulnerability and intent. Of course, the Trump Administration shows little interest in addressing the former. If GOP elites had taken intent seriously, they would have broken with Trump.

At the same time, all of this is likely to come to a head sooner or later. Mueller’s probe is almost certainly uncovering significant dirty laundry associated with Manafort and other players in the Trump campaign. Trump himself was, in one way or another, waist deep in all kinds of shady wheeling and dealing with Moscow-connected oligarchs. The heart of the matter—involving debt, cash, shell companies, and money laundering—will prove just as banal as Russian advertising buys on Facebook.

And, if you think about it, the banality of Trump-Russia is itself deeply frightening. American democracy proved vulnerable to Facebook feeds, some fake news sites, and a mentally unstable grifter.

We are our own worst enemy.

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