How to Un-Ring Foreign Bells in Our Elections

The last few weeks have brought both good and bad news about our recent election.

The good news is that the election recount turned up no evidence that electronic vote counts were manipulated. This should come as a relief to all of us, including those who might have preferred a different outcome. While I would have preferred a Hillary victory (though I never supported her personally), the brouhaha that would have arisen had the recount overturned the election results could have had catastrophic consequences for our economy and the future of democracy. Altogether, I am glad that we can put to rest any doubts about the integrity of the vote.

The bad news is that, as reported in the New York Times, our national intelligence community agrees that Russia sought to manipulate the election through other means.

A quick summary: two hacker groups infiltrated the servers of the DNC, senior Clinton campaign advisor John Podesta, and the campaign of Senator Lindsay Graham. The politically and personally embarrassing emails that they stole found their way to WikiLeaks, which put some of them online every few weeks during the presidential campaign.

On the surface, this might not be terribly troubling: after all, government transparency is generally a good thing. However, as many have already observed, the hacks and leaks appear to have been a Russian plot to affect the United States, presumably to Russia’s advantage. The suspected hackers are widely believed by the intelligence community to be cyberwarfare arms of the F.S.B. and the G.R.U., two Russian spy agencies. What exactly the hacks hoped/intended to accomplish is still a point of disagreement within our intelligence community, but no one is under the impression that Vladimir Putin was trying to help us.

The nature of Russia’s meddling causes unique problems for a democracy like the United States that enshrines freedom of speech in its founding documents.

On one hand, the leaks were news, and the information within should not have been suppressed by our government. But on the other hand, the violation of American servers and intentional interference in the American election is an act of cyberwarfare. That reality sets up a bigger problem—our powerful 1st Amendment vs. national security and sovereignty.

Cyberwarfare is something that is often tricky to grasp, but the key is to realize that it is more than traditional war waged on virtual battlefields. It is not just a “bombing run” on virtual infrastructure or the shutdown of our power grid. Cyberwar includes methods of international conflict that have previously been the exclusive realm of spooks: psyops, information war, and character assassination.

Claus von Clausewitz famously wrote that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”, and while Russia’s methods would be strange to the Prussian theorist, he would immediately grasp that the campaign waged online during the last year is exactly “other means”.

Last month, a Rubicon was crossed. A bell was rung that cannot be un-rung.

Information knows no borders, nor can we significantly check the speed at which it spreads. While we can attempt to limit data breaches in the future, Russia’s playbook will be used more and more often in the coming decades by more and more players. It will to be up to us citizens to sort fact from fiction, information from propaganda, and trustworthy sources from duplicitous ones. That may be the biggest overall problem.

But our dilemma may be even more insidious. While manipulation of data has previously been part of cyberwar campaigns, none of the Podesta or DNC emails appear to have been edited by the people who seized them. While their significance has been spun and debated and at times falsified, the veracity of the emails themselves appears to be indisputable. In the future, it will not be enough to ask “Is this true?”

We must also train ourselves to question why we are seeing what we are seeing. We must always ask whether or not we are being manipulated into believing something false and whether doubt and fear are being sown by people who wish us ill. What we will see in the future is not only the spreading of lies but the weaponization of the truth.

And that is truly terrifying.

So the good news today is that election results apparently were NOT fiddled. The bad news is that many of the bells we heard ringing during our election are from outside our borders and that they are just as effective in summoning voters to voting booths as bells ringing in the town next door. If those bells cannot be un-rung, how can we silence them in the future?

And perhaps more importantly: should we?

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