Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Russia Did Influence The US 2016 Election

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Ph.D., just released a book: Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know

I have real heartburn about the title. It was not a cyberwar. It was a political war, it was an information war, it was even part of an ongoing hybrid war being waged against the West if one chooses to take a whole-of-nation perspective (and one should). It was not, however, a cyberwar.

Cyber played an integral part, it was important to the final outcome. Cyber espionage, cyber attacks, and poor cybersecurity played a large part in obtaining the information used in the greater influence campaign against the United States, and later, against France and Germany. As the author suggests, Russian trolls played a large part in feeding the flames in discussion groups all over the internet, but that is only psychological warfare enabled by cyber. That is not cyberwar. The term cyberwar attracts attention and it sells books, but the fact remains, it was not a cyberwar. 

Disregarding this obvious abuse of the word cyber, this is an excellent article which covers a most-likely well-researched effort by Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Her conclusions are data-driven, which lends credence and substance to her conclusions. It appears we still cannot quantify how much Russia influenced the 2016 US elections, so we have reached the same conclusion.

I fully intend to read the book, if only I can get past the title. 

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The case that Russia is winning the cyberwar

A new book argues that Russian election meddling was decisive — and it’s still ongoing

Kathleen Hall Jamieson is a prominent political scientist and professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania. For the past 40 years, she has studied political communication: debates, advertisements, and speeches. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, she studied the effect that the debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had on the electorate. That set Jamieson down a road that led her to a bold (if not particularly original) conclusion: Russia very likely tipped the election to Trump.

What makes Hall’s take notable is her scrupulously data-driven approach to answering a question that many people have dismissed as impossible. And while she stipulates that no one will ever be able to say with absolute certainty what tipped the election, Hall’s new book presents the case that Russia’s covert influence campaign was likely decisive in Trump’s victory.

Jane Mayer has read the book, Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know. (The rest of us can buy it today.) In a new piece at The New Yorker, Mayer traces the evolution of Hall’s beliefs from her work analyzing the 2016 debates to a detailed theory about how Russia won.

Hall believes Russia’s campaign was decisive for three main reasons. One, the strategic release of stolen documents through WikiLeaks, which were amplified by the US media, helped Russia manipulate news cycles in ways that diminished trust in Clinton and distracted from Trump’s gaffes. Two, a forged email purporting to be from Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in which Lynch promised to go easy on Clinton in the investigation into her private email server, led FBI Director James Comey to go rogue and hold a dramatic press conference calling Clinton’s actions “careless.” The email that sparked the press conference appears to have been Russian disinformation — but Comey’s concerns that Lynch’s integrity had been compromised changed the course of the campaign, and maybe history.

Finally, there’s the much-discussed-around-here question of disinformation on social networks. Hall believes that voter modeling documents stolen from the DNC would have been useful to Russian hackers as they worked to sow division in key battleground states. (They made it easier for Russia to figure out where to post.) Ultimately, Trump’s election came down to 80,000 votes across three states — and by selectively depressing turnout with divisive social media posts, Hall argues, Russia’s interference was decisive.

As Mayer points out, Facebook data could likely shed more light on the subject:

Philip Howard, the Oxford professor, believes that Facebook possesses this data, down to the location of a user’s computer, and that such information could conceivably reveal whether an undecided voter was swayed after viewing certain content. He also thinks that, if there was any collusion between the St. Petersburg trolls and the Trump campaign, Facebook’s internal data could document it, by revealing coördination on political posts. But, he says, Facebook has so far resisted divulging such data to researchers, claiming that doing so would be a breach of its user agreement.

Some academics disagree with Hall’s conclusions, and Mayer speaks with them. But if Hall can’t prove her theory with absolute certainty, she can at least offer a preponderance of evidence. If you read Hall’s book — and I plan to — let me know what you think.

In the meantime, Monday brought fresh reminders that Russia’s campaign is ongoing. Reddit’s largest group devoted to celebrating Trump, TheDonald, appears to have been targeted by Russian propagandists for years, reports Ryan Broderick:

The bulk of the investigation that was posted to /r/FuckTheAltRight focused on two suspicious domains: and Both domains were registered in Russia, both sites contain linguistic errors common with other Russia-affiliated sites, and both heavily targeted /r/The_Donald. Based on job listings posted online, appears to have been created in St. Petersburg in 2016. And is owned by a member of a civil society institution called the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation.

Russell Brandom says Reddit still hasn’t confirmed what’s going on:

Reached by The Verge, Reddit declined to confirm that the posts were taken down because of a specific Russia connection, but said they were in violation of site policy. “We are continuing our investigation into suspicious content on Reddit and have taken action against several domains that break our site-wide policies,” a spokesperson said. “As was the case here, we take user reports of suspicious activity very seriously and fully investigate any claims made to us.”

There are 43 days until the midterm elections. And the forces that shaped the 2016 presidential election appear to still be operating at full tilt.



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