Russia’s attempt to influence the Presidential election is a dangerous and foreboding act. However, it is not completely unprecedented. The 2016 Presidential election is not the first time that a foreign power has interfered in the American electoral process. It has been a concern since the founding of the nation. James Madison and Alexander Hamilton warned of foreign interference in American politics in the early days of the republic.
“Foreign powers will intermeddle in our affairs, and spare no expense to influence them. Persons having foreign attachments will be sent among us, and insinuated into our councils, in order to be made instruments for their purposes,” James Madison is reported to have said.
While many instances involving foreign powers influencing American internal affairs in the nineteenth century are limited or sketchy, Britain and France meddled in the Civil War and would have welcomed a Lincoln defeat. However, there is little of consequence that was overtly done by foreign powers to influence American elections until the twentieth century.
In 1940, Adolf Hitler feared that Franklin Roosevelt was guiding the United States toward entering the war in Europe. Hitler funded isolationist supporters in both the Republican and Democratic parties in an attempt to thwart a third Roosevelt term. Conversely, Winston Churchill used British intelligence services to fund interventionist supporters and provide information for that cause.
In 1968, South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu delayed participating in peace talks in an attempt to boost Richard Nixon’s chances in the election. Thieu, in coordination with Nixon, maneuvered to deflate a surging Hubert Humphrey rally in the polls.
For years, the Soviet Union funded the American Communist Party with millions of dollars and encouraged party members to engage in espionage. These results had little effect. Electorally, the best that the communists ever did was a quarter of one percent of the vote in 1932. Vladimir Putin’s recent attempt to influence the American elections is simply a continuation of this policy through more sophisticated means.
Indeed, the Kremlin’s work was one of the most sophisticated propaganda campaigns in history. The Russians hacked information from both the Democratic and Republican Parties. They then released damaging information about Hillary Clinton at opportune times. They also funded sites that spread fake news about Clinton. That a mere 77,000 votes in three states made the difference between a Trump or Clinton Presidency means that even a small influence on the election could have altered it.
While the other attempts to influence elections involved small groups and limited success, except for the 1968 election, the 2016 election was a widespread effort to control debate in the social media. This is a threat that is not going to go away. The successes of the 2016 election will be built upon for the future. These future elections will find more sophisticated techniques by the Russians and from other players, such as the Chinese.
Success will be heightened by American supporters of these foreign sources. The alt-right has already been identified as being pro-Russia. In the past, these foreign-funded small groups have done little but be a small thorn for the United States. Social media and the instantaneous news of the Internet have changed that.
It is highly ironic that the information age of computers and the Internet, which helped bring down the Soviet Union because the Soviets refused to share information to keep their economy expanding, is now the tool that threatens the integrity of United States’ elections. It isn’t information causing the upheaval this time, but misinformation. It isn’t just the United States at risk either. Democratic nations around the world are vulnerable to the same pressures. Fear is growing that the coming European elections in France and Germany will be the next target.
A failure to respond to this unprecedented act will seriously fracture the health of any democratic political system that is targeted. While an offensive cyber war could prevent future attacks, it also may lead to an all-out cyber war or even direct military conflict. Unlike nuclear weapons deterrence, which guarantees the mutual destruction of everything, a cyber conflict leaves people unharmed. That makes a cyber war much more likely to occur.
Cyber defenses could be beefed up, but every Internet wall will eventually be breached by relentless, insidious hackers. A defensive game is not a winning game in this area.
All this turns to another option, which is a dangerous step. Restricting, tagging or redirecting fake or enhanced news stories is a clear threat to the First Amendment. Yet, without combating misinformation with information the minds of voters are going to be an easy target.
There was a time when the media controlled the news by appearing legitimate. Not everyone could put on a television show, print a newspaper or news magazine. The size, presence and availability of the old media proved that they weren’t someone operating out of a basement in suburbia. Today, the Internet controls the news. A website from a single blogger can look as legitimate as one from a major media company. Junk news appears as valid as real news. In addition, “news” is sometimes simply opinion. This makes for a propagandist’s paradise. The Russians know this and so does every adversarial power to the world’s democratic nations. That includes, China, North Korea and Iran.
The threat to the basic principle of democratic self-rule may be facing one of it’s most critical tests. The right to freely choose one’s leaders is based on information. The information may not always be the best, but it is a guide from which an informed opinion can be made. That information is now in doubt, and so are the opinions made from it.