What does election hacking mean for democracy?

As the US expels 35 Russian Diplomats—and Russia responds—John Naughton reflects on the lessons of this interference

December 30, 2016
The headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia
The headquarters of the CIA in Langley, Virginia

The CIA has concluded that Russia intervened in this year’s presidential election to help Donald Trump win. Speaking on Fox News the beneficiary of these alleged subterranean efforts retorted, "I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it." And his transition team issued a dismissive statement. "These are the same people," it stated, "that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’"

Ponder this for a moment. American intelligence agencies have concluded with “high confidence” that Russia acted covertly in the latter stages of the presidential campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Trump's. They based that conclusion, in part, on finding that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems as well as the Democratic National Committee’s network, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.

That, of course, doesn't prove that the Russian intervention was decisive in enabling Trump's victory (though, in the end, the verdict of the Electoral College depended on 80,000 votes). But in a way it doesn't matter. What matters is that a foreign adversary intervened covertly but adroitly in an American presidential election; that the outcome was the victory of a candidate who seems less belligerent towards Russia than his predecessor; and that the new president is contemptuously dismissive of the analysis of the intelligence services that he is soon to lead.

If you wanted confirmation of the astuteness of Russian exploitation of cyberspace, then this is surely it. In fact it's the outcome of Putin's updating of Russia's capability for kinetic warfare with a doctrine which embeds "informational warfare" as an integral part of military strategy. "Russia’s practice of information warfare has ... developed rapidly," reports Chatham House. "This development has consisted of a series of adaptations following failed information campaigns by Russia, accompanied by successful adoption of the internet."

What we are realising now is the extent to which the Putin regime really "gets" the Net—and especially its potential for radical disruption by undermining faith in online information. Just as mainstream US media underestimated the efficacy of Trump's online strategy, western countries have fundamentally misconceived the nature of Russian disinformation campaigns. In the same way that the Washington Post and the New York Times persisted in believing that the way to undermine Trump was to fact-check him, so western countries continue to believe that the best way to counter Russian disinformation is to refute it. "But," says Chatham House, "by applying western notions of the nature and importance of truth, this approach measures these campaigns by entirely the wrong criteria, and fundamentally misunderstands their objectives."

As it happens, the US is only the first major democracy to learn these lessons. The Germans are next in line. Last month Bruno Kahl, the head of the country's foreign intelligence service, warned that next year’s general election could be targeted by Russian hackers intent on spreading misinformation and undermining the democratic process. “We have evidence" he said, "that cyber-attacks are taking place that have no purpose other than to elicit political uncertainty. The perpetrators are interested in delegitimising the democratic process as such, regardless of who that ends up helping. We have indications that [the attacks] come from the Russian region."

In a strange way, Donald Trump appeared to take some hints from the Russian handbook of disruption. Some months ago, for example, when most pollsters—and probably Trump himself—believed that Clinton would win, he started tweeting predictions that the election would be "rigged." At the time, it looked as though he was getting his retaliation in first—preparing a narrative that would explain his failure. But of course the consequence was to sow doubt in the minds of his supporters about the legitimacy of the election. And this is one of the most corrosive things one can do in a democracy.

Democracy, as the political philosopher Ralf Dahrendorf often pointed out, is a fragile plant which needs an unusual compost to nourish and support it. This metaphorical soil is made up of a melange of conventions and institutions—free and fair elections, peaceful transfers of power, the rule of law, free media, an impartial judiciary and so on. But it also depends on citizens' believing that these institutions are all that they seem. In that sense, democracy is a kind of confidence trick. If you want to undermine it, therefore, eroding that confidence is the way to go. And it turns out that the Internet is a useful tool for that purpose.