Donald Trump has a history of questioning Russia's involvement in efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, presumably because he bridles at the notion that his campaign colluded with the Russians and the implication that he might not have been elected without Vladimir Putin's help. Trump seems to have trouble separating those three issues, which helps explain why he condemns special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Russia's election-related activities as a "witch hunt" and wants Attorney General Jeff Sessions to shut it down. It may also explain why Trump described Russian-sponsored Facebook ads as part of "the Russia hoax." Yesterday the White House tried to compensate for such comments by staging a press briefing in which five national security officials offered a decidedly more alarming take. Rather too alarming, if you ask me.
"Our democracy itself is in the crosshairs," Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen warned. "Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy, and it has become clear that they are the target of our adversaries, who seek…to sow discord and undermine our way of life." FBI Director Christopher Wray said "malign foreign influence operations" are "targeting our democratic institutions and our values." This "information warfare," he said, is intended to "sow discord or undermine confidence."
National Security Adviser John Bolton described Russia's "meddling and interference" as "aggression" against the United States. "The Russians are looking for every opportunity, regardless of party, regardless of whether or not it applies to the election, to continue their pervasive efforts to undermine our fundamental values," Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said. He explained that "Russia's intent" is "to undermine our democratic values, drive a wedge between our allies, and do a number of other nefarious things."
According to the Trump administration, Russia is waging "information warfare" that threatens to destroy "our way of life," "democracy itself," and "our fundamental values." Either that, or the whole thing is a hoax. I am inclined to think the truth lies somewhere in between. As Coats mentioned in passing, "Russia has tried to use its propaganda and methods to sow discord in America" for "decades." Somehow our democracy and way of life have survived. To put the matter in perspective, it helps to distinguish between three kinds of activities that fall under the heading of Russian "meddling and interference."
Manipulation of vote counts is the most serious threat, but it also seems to be the most remote. "All the states realize that securing their election systems—both administrative systems and voting machines—is a high priority," Charles Stewart III, an expert on election administration at MIT, tells The New York Times. Stewart "said computer systems and voting machines were now probably the most secure part of the election infrastructure, thanks in part to a stepped-up effort by Homeland Security officials."
The next most serious problem is the hacking of computer systems used by politicians and parties. That sort of intrusion is (and ought to be) a crime, but it's not clear that it undermines democracy in any meaningful sense. As Putin himself has pointed out, when Russian patriots (operating totally independently from the Kremlin, mind you) steal emails from the Democratic National Committee or Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman and post them online, they are disseminating accurate information that may be of legitimate public interest. Even if you don't share that perspective, candidates and campaigns obviously have a strong incentive to avoid embarrassing revelations like these by improving their cybersecurity.
The third kind of meddling is the most amorphous, the hardest to stop, and the one that least resembles an act of aggression. As Wray noted yesterday, "There's a clear distinction between, on the one hand, activities that threaten the security and integrity of our election systems, and, on the other hand, the broader threat of influence operations designed to manipulate and influence our voters and their opinions." The FBI director meant that the defenses against these distinct forms of interference are bound to be different, but the two threats are also morally different. While one violates people's rights (by trespassing on and messing with their property), the other may amount to nothing more than political discourse.
That sort of activity—creating Facebook pages, organizing rallies, running online ads, tweeting commentary—is not ordinarily described as malign or nefarious, and it is indisputably protected by the First Amendment. When Americans do it, we call it participating in democracy. When Russians do it, we call it undermining democracy.
The influence operation described in the federal indictments unveiled in February and July did involve various types of fraud and dishonesty, including social media accounts created under phony identities, Russians posing as Americans, and (in some cases) the dissemination of fake news. But the essence of what these operatives did was still speech. That is how they sought to "sow discord": through messages that people were free to consider or ignore, believe or dismiss, accept at face value or check, take to heart and act on or skim and forget. If that is "aggression" or "warfare," so is any speech that aims to persuade people or reinforce their pre-existing beliefs.
It's true, there is plenty of stupid, illogical, ugly, and misleading stuff in the Russian-sponsored messages that have been publicly released. But there is plenty of stupid, illogical, ugly, and misleading stuff in the messages manufactured by Americans right here in the USA. Why not focus on the content of the speech, rather than the nationality of the speaker?
Even benign speech can take on a sinister cast when it is linked to people who live in other countries. Facebook recently deleted a bunch of pages after finding evidence that they were created by foreigners pretending to be Americans. One of those pages was dedicated to organizing and promoting a counterprotest against a white supremacist rally next week in Washington, D.C. The real activists who are participating in the event are pretty pissed at Facebook's ham-handed censorship. "There wasn't much on the page before we were added," one of them told The New York Times. "The content, when it was taken down, was all from us."
This is the sort of thing you can expect when politicians start demanding that social media platforms help protect American democracy from ads suggesting that a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for Satan. "It's an extremely dangerous situation for free speech when politicians are screaming at web platforms to 'do something' about a problem that is difficult to address," Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, told the Times. "Censoring an anti-Nazi protest was a particularly egregious example of collateral damage."
Does an anti-Nazi protest "sow discord"? I guess so, and by Nielsen et al.'s logic it represents a threat to democratic values.