Full disclosure, I consider Molly McKew a good friend.
Whenever we chat, it is addictive. It’s like talking with a long lost relative. We speak the same language, have the same perspective on most things (I discovered one exception yesterday), and seem to agree on how to proceed.
By Philip Balson, Harvard Class of 2019
If you want to sleep soundly at night, do not talk to Molly McKew about Russia. The information warfare expert, who wrote a widely read article in POLITICO a few months ago, spends her time thinking about the sinister ways that the Kremlin tries to undermine Western democracy. So there was a chill in the room when I sat down to talk with her, notwithstanding the sun shining on Harvard’s brick walls and glinting off its colorful domes. McKew spends much of her time working in the Baltic states, near the Russian border. She remained cool and rational as she laid out the lessons she has learned there, and decried Russian interference––past and future––in the politics of Europe and the United States. Below are some key takeaways from the interview, edited lightly for clarity:
Openness is Weakness: McKew opened the interview by noting that “the weaknesses [that the Russians] exploit––they aren’t actually weaknesses. [They’re] the things that make our system good. It’s the openness. It’s the transparency. The traits that makes us a vibrant, functioning democracy, they view them as weaknesses and they know how to exploit them. But we need them to stay who we are.” She went on to say that we have to be very careful in combatting Russian interference without undermining the very things that make us a free and open society.
We are Not Ready: I asked her about Russian interference in the upcoming French election, supporting the populist National Front. She noted, not without bitterness, that “everybody thinks they get” how Russian interference works by now. Apparently, “that’s wrong.” According to McKew, there exists “a very sophisticated information architecture that has been constructed” and “a massive data effort” that goes far beyond anything Western politics has ever seen before. Fake news might just be the tip of the iceberg.
We Have No Idea What Goes on Out There: McKew went on to say that “there were all of these ads running before the election on Facebook that you never saw, I never saw…because we weren’t targeted by them.” Still, without us knowing, apparently “there really [were] massive parallel campaigns of voter suppression being run…trying to suppress the African-American vote, trying to suppress…young women, other women” and the Trump campaign staffers “brag about it when they talk about how they won.” If this is true, then perhaps it is time to wake up and pay more attention the world outside the Cambridge, Manhattan, and Palo Alto bubbles.
The Russians Play Dirty: If McKew is to be believed, then “fake news” is the least of our worries. She pointed out that the Russian intelligence “just tried to assassinate the Montenegrin Prime Minister a few months ago, and there has been zero commentary or international response to that.” Furthermore, she cites alleged “active operations by Russian intelligence officers to create disruptive cells,” including with far-right militias in Hungary and soccer hooligans in Poland and France. According to McKew, “right now the Russians feel very emboldened.” If that is the case, the next couple years should be very interesting (to say the least).
Do Not Believe Everything You Hear: Left-wing media has been awash with conspiracy theories alleging that the Russians designed a Trump win. McKew begs to differ, saying: “I don’t think they wanted Trump to win. I don’t think they thought he could win. I think that the entire way their machinery was pointed before the election was [based off of] the assumption of a Clinton victory” for propaganda purposes.
McKew’s theories definitely sound jarring to the American ear. We take the sanctity of our democratic process for granted, and these are pretty extraordinary conversations to be having in Harvard Yard. Certainly, McKew’s take on the world has not been universally accepted: her POLITICO article generated pushback in The New Republic and elsewhere. For now, color me slightly skeptical on her more incredible claims––I cannot quite tell if she is a Cassandra figure or a false prophet. But in the febrile atmosphere that our public debate has entered, Molly McKew has a voice worth hearing––even if it keeps you up late into the night.