As former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified before two House committees on Wednesday, much attention was focused on whether he was low energy, bumbling or a partisan hack. This obscured Mueller’s consistent and most important message: The Russian government meddled in the 2016 U.S. election and continue to seek ways to interfere in our elections.
This should alarm and outrage every American. Beyond attention and action from state and federal officials, it also demands that we all must be on the lookout for bad-faith attempts to spread misinformation and sow uncertainty — not only in our elections, but in our general discourse as well.
“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” Mueller said at the end of his opening statement to the House Judiciary Committee. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious … this deserves the attention of every American.”
The next day, the Senate Intelligence Committee, which has also been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, released its first set of findings. They echo Mueller’s message.
“The Russian government directed extensive activity, beginning in at least 2014 and carrying into at least 2017, against U.S. election infrastructure at the state and local level,” the heavily redacted report says.
The committee report reiterated an earlier Department of Homeland Security assessment that systems in every state were “scanned.”
“While the Committee does not know with confidence what Moscow’s intentions were, Russia may have been probing vulnerabilities in voting systems to exploit later,” the report says. “Alternatively, Moscow may have sought to undermine confidence in the 2016 U.S. elections simply through the discovery of their activity.”
This last point is extremely important. In its report, the committee said it saw no evidence that votes were changed or that voting machines were manipulated. But, the Russians didn’t need to actually change voting results to sow doubt and discord about the presidential election, and, ultimately, about the U.S. leadership role in the world..
If their goal was to weaken the U.S. government and its influence, especially in the eyes of other nations, they succeeded spectacularly. President Donald Trump, of course, is a leading actor in this drama. He has made the U.S. an unpredictable partner by reneging on international agreements and by shifting U.S. allegiances.
In addition, Trump’s election — whether a symptom or a cause — has brought with it a wave of dissatisfaction in the U.S., with Americans turning against one another over issues as small as drinking straws and as large as who is American. We should be wrestling over matters of deep moral concern, but when we constantly fight amongst ourselves, our attention is diverted away from international concerns, especially spreading democracy.
In this regard, Russian President Vladimir Putin has gained power. It only stands to reason that he — and other foreign leaders — will again use our elections to raise their standing.
While strengthening the security of election infrastructure is important, as Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, both members of the Intelligence Committee, emphasized Thursday, countering interference meant to disrupt and damage the U.S. goes well beyond voting machines and vote tallies.
Consider the “Lion King.” Really. Watching the remake of the children’s classic movie, Washington Post columnist David Von Drehle conjured warnings of “deep fake” warfare.
“If a warthog and a meerkat can become Abbott and Costello, how much more easily can a presidential candidate’s image be made to utter an outrageous statement on election eve — or a president’s virtual self be manipulated to threaten a nuclear strike?” he wrote this week.
“Digital tools will be exploited for evil. Count on it,” he warned.
It’s already happening. In one example, Russian trolls, from a group linked to Putin, spread false information about supposed widespread food poisoning from turkeys on Thanksgiving 2015. The whole thing was a hoax with the goal of seeing how easy it would be to spread panic, experts concluded.
So, yes our election systems need to be closely scrutinized and vulnerabilities eliminated. But, more broadly, all of us need to much more wary of what we read — and share — especially online. We don’t need to become paranoid, but we must be much more sophisticated consumers of information with the understanding that people thousands of miles away are trying to manipulate us into making choices that further their interests, not our own.