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Reality and Perception: How the Russians Won an American Election

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Americans really don’t get the Russians. We are a people who pride themselves on divided government, openness, and the exposure of corruption – almost to the point of obsession. The Internet has allowed those truly American attitudes an even greater sway in the its body politic. Now, everyone can be their own “loudspeaker of truth.” In Russia, the story is quite the opposite.

Russia has a 500-year history of oppression from their “leadership.” It started with Czar Ivan the Terrible and continues today under Czar Vladimir the First. Russia is country run by central control; a state that views opposition as criminal and traitorous. And one of the most important parts of state power is controlling what people “think” through the information they are provided.

Thanks to the Internet, the Russians can more easily manipulate information than ever before. And Moscow is now applying gleefully that ability to their overseas goals. Most recently, Moscow been accused by Washington of desiring to control and influence our Presidential elections. And to a limited extent, Moscow have succeeded by the very effort. In the domain of worldwide Internet, perception is reality.

This type of information manipulation for political result is not new. In the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, perception was often reality. The United States used covert means to supply information to friendly overseas sources to reinforce its positions. Occasionally, such as in Vietnam, it even deluded itself and the American people into believing that a limited, winnable war was possible.

The KGB, Russia’s Cold War spy service, was expert at planting damaging information about the U.S. around the world. It was a way of undermining our influence and the perception of wrong doing was all that mattered in the war of minds. Sometimes it worked quite well and the damage persists to this day. For instance, it was the KGB that floated the idea that American experiments to dominate the Third World created AIDS.

And so it goes today. We deal with Russia relying on old habits reinforced and facilitated with new technologies. The Internet with its hidden corners of attribution is a hard place in which to fight rumor and innuendo. Instantaneous transmission makes it impossible to control or counter the initial message. The very fact the Russian are releasing information about American candidates is damaging to the perceived integrity of our elections. The idea they could fool with our vote count is even more upsetting to the legitimacy of an already spooked electorate.

So, the first game of perception management goes to the Russians. There will be a section of the U.S. population already unhappy with the election results that will forever believe the system is now vulnerable to massive rigging. The reality is that there are several thousand different voting systems – ranging from paper ballots to electronic voting gear rarely updated to the 21st century. Hacking on a mass scale is unlikely though some minor efforts may be made. But that does not really matter. Even a few hacking attempts could be enough to poison perceptions.

So, for this round, the Russians have won an American election. It will be up to a new Administration to make Moscow pay for this interference. The games have only just begun.


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