By Benny Sun
With Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton becoming the first woman to win her primary elections and almost attaining the presidency, and with President Donald Trump becoming the first real-estate-baron-turned-reality-television-star-turned-orange to win the presidency, the Presidential Election of 2016 was an event of both groundbreaking progress and curious intrigue. For instance, the use of social media by politicians to directly connect to the millions of political constituencies under the swipe of a keyboard skyrocketed, championed by Donald Trump in his persistent nocturnal toilet tweeting sessions. However, under the surface of technological progress holds a darker sinister secret revolving around foreign intervention and its threat to democracy.
Russia’s disinformation operations on social media have become infamous for their intervention to sway the results of the election in favor of Trump. For example, Russian agencies swarmed Twitter with Twitterbots which promote false information about Hillary Clinton, inaccurate polling results favoring Trump, and even cropped images depicting pro-Trump rallies internationally. However, lesser-known is Russia’s attempts to exploit racial tensions in order to demoralize and divide African Americans, discouraging them from voting; over two-thirds of Russian fake ads during the 2016 campaign season targeted Black Americans with the intention to lower turnout. In a country rife with racial discrimination and a history of suppressing the black vote, Russia is now only another group to disentangle African Americans from the political process. More specifically, reports indicate that Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) on social media has depicted false movements such as “Black Matters US” or “Don’t Shoot” where 96% of all Youtube activity focuses on police brutality on black victims in left-leaning areas. In 2016, the unfortunate police shooting of African-American, Keith Lamont Scott, gave rise to numerous protests for ending police brutality across Charlotte, North Carolina. However, Russian internet trolls attempted to manipulate the mood over these protests through its focus on instigating hate and violence over rightful anger. By injecting negativity of lies among social media and by pressuring African-Americans through antagonism, Russia’s spread of misinformation detrimentally dissuaded real political actions in favor of more violent and hateful alternatives.
Through their numerous means to divide Americans, all Russian ads have one common message: to skip out on Voting Day. Unfortunately, in 2016, Russia’s strategy worked. The voter turnout for black Americans was 7% lower in swing states in 2016, and a study by the University of Tennessee quantifiably found that every 25,000 retweets connected to Russia’s Internet Research Agency correlated to a 1% increase in Trump polling results. With significant efforts by Russia to destroy the legitimacy of American elections, has the United States shown equal efforts to protect American elections from the foreign intervention? The answer is more nuanced than it seems.
America’s own cybersecurity and election infrastructure are still incredibly vulnerable to malicious manipulation from foreign and domestic threats after 2016. In Georgia’s sixth congressional district’s election in 2017, leading Democrat Jon Ossoff had 50.3% of votes, enough for him to win the vote, but soon after a computer crash saw his vote share drop to 48.1% which allowed the Republicans to win the district. While initially blamed as a technical error that miscounted the number of Democratic votes, many were looking towards Russia as the culprit behind this cyber attack. However, Georgia is not the only state with a vulnerable election infrastructure today. Alex Halderman, a leading cybersecurity expert at the University of Michigan explains that “Many states are making progress, but the progress is patchy and there are major gaps … Forty states are using computer technology that is a decade old or more and often they are not receiving software updates or security patches”. Critically, with consistent cyber tampering looming over America’s elections and with Republican states passing stricter voter ID laws which disproportionately affect minority voters, more and more African Americans are choosing to remain home on election day. However, even if the states completely renovated their online infrastructure with state-of-the-art technology, many would still face issues. The ISC(2) reports that North America will face a cybersecurity shortage of over 800,000 professionals in the field. With over 51% of cybersecurity professionals citing that their organization is at extreme or moderate risk due to staff shortages, the United States is completely unprepared to defend its minority population from the delegitimization of American elections.
Instead in 2018, rather than “defending” America, the United States has adopted an “offensive” position actively hacking Russia’s agencies before they hack America first. Under the newly-adopted US Cyber Command which gained new powers in 2018, the federal government is currently targeting individual Russian operatives to deter them from spreading false information in the next election cycle. Dubbed “Defending Forward”, the US Cyber Command pursues an offensive strategy of disrupting, denying, and shutting down enemy networks as a measure of preventing the hacking election. For example, in the 2018 Midterms, US Cyber Command successfully took out the online capabilities of Russian Troll Farm, the Internet Research Agency, thus severing their abilities to spread online propaganda without the need for the United States to defend their networks. Additionally, the United States also took out numerous agencies funding the IRA and indicted over 13 individuals connected to the IRA who face prosecution in the United States. Senator Mike Rounds corroborates “the fact that the 2018 election process moved forward without successful Russian intervention was not a coincidence.” While taking the operations of the IRA offline may seem temporary, America’s strong cyber capabilities can act as a deterrence factor that discourages other countries from hacking into US elections.
Overall, America’s decision to ignore cybersecurity and instead focus on offensive cyber operations against Russia will play an important role in the upcoming 2020 elections. With the legitimization of America’s elections and the voter turnout of minorities at stake, the success of Russia’s hacking could very much shake the foundation of American democracy.