The 2016 election will probably stand as the most controversial election in US history. Wherever that be the election of Donald Trump or the political divide it created, one of the most important elements was Russia’s involvement.
Through leaking emails to creating fake troll accounts to provoke the two sides, there’s no denying Russia’s use of cyberspace was the ultimate deciding factor in the outcome of the election. But their campaign was never a pro-trump effort. It was always one to destabilize it’s western rival. And it succeeded. After the election, the divide between the left and right became wider. Mob mentality grew stronger and more hateful. The people lost faith in the integrity of journalism. This attack by the Russia’s on western democracy has changed everything
But what may shock you is that this has not been Russia’s first hand in cyberwarfare. Rather, it’s part of it’s new cunning foriegn policy to interfere with democracy and to cause panic and chaos. It has struck Ukraine, France, UK, USA, Belarus, South Korea and many other victims we are yet to be aware of. It has ruined the integrity of democracy and created violent instability worldwide. Cyber Warfare is not the bullet of tomorrow, it’s the nuke of today. And until politicians catch up, we as the people will not be safe.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the Kremlin began incorporating the internet into their foriegn policy. The earliest known documentation of this was in 2003, by french journalist “Anna Polyanskaya” in her article “the virtual eye of big brother.” However, the first major use of this weapon against a foriegn nation can be traced to Ukraine. Russia has been trying to expand its influence in many former USSR states, one being Ukraine in 2014. During this time, the nation was considering not only joining the EU, but potentially even NATO. This would not only interfere with Russia’s economic control over the region (particularly it’s gas exports to Ukraine), but having more NATO influence on Russia’s border.
However, Russia has one advantage here. Ukraine has a strong Russian Ethnic population. This population was still sympathetic to it’s eastern Brother and wasn’t too keen on moving to the west. Through online state made propaganda, Russia tapped into this group, claiming the pro european union movement was one of “Nazism” and “ultra-nationalists”. This caused a pro Russian movement to rise in such a large and violent wave that froze the nations ambitions of switching. Not only that, but the Ukrainian and Russian divide between the two ethnic groups caused violence and instability in the region. In the 2014 election, for example, pro Russian mobs threatened anyone that would participate in the election, causing only 20% of polling booths to actually remain open. The propaganda also led to Pro Russian unrest in Ukraine, resulting in violence and over 4,000 deaths.
Russia had just used the power of the internet and propaganda to divide an entire nation, attack it’s democracy and even take lives. It had just discovered one of the most powerful weapons of the information age, and it was ready to take it out on some of it’s greater enemies.
2016 US Election
Russia first started it’s campaign using “troll farms”. Troll farms are centralised government groups that create thousands of trolling bot accounts with the intention to spread fake news and to promote mob mentalities. Russia used it’s troll form called the “IRA” (Internet research agency). Their ultimate goal was to support Donald Trump’s campaign and rise to power, through all means necessary.
These troll accounts posed as Americans and organised election rallies across the country, often favouring the republican candidate president trump. These russian bots also created online groups which would frequently spread fake news and conspiracy theories about the democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Some of these pieces were retweeted by famous republicans and Trump proponents without releasing the troll’s true identity. The Russian government even bought Millions worth of advertising to promote the Republican candidate. Roughly half of all of the information spread by the IRA was simply untrue, aimed at inciting radical reactions against Hillary and creating a stronger right wing mob. Despite this, roughly 126 million have been estimated to have seen at least one of these ad’s, significantly influencing the election
One of the most important uses of cyberwarfare was the release of Hillary’s emails on wikileaks. Three days before the democratic national convention, more than 10,000 of Hilary’s emails were leaked online to wikileaks. This created an impression that the DNC was biased towards Hilary’s campaign, causing a widespread negative impression of the candidate all the way up to the election.
This influence, many experts say, swayed the American public to elect Donald Trump in 2016. Throughout this process, they also intensified the political online bubbles and further divided the Left and Right, causing greater instability that would continue to plague the nation for years to come.
More importantly, as Donald Trump is more concerned for Domestic rather than foreign policy, Russia has been given more space to spread its influence. The US pulling out troops from syria saw Russia become the major power of the region. Trump’s Tariffs have created an economic division in the west, which Russia has been able to take advantage of. The US’s influence internationally overall has been compromised and Russia has been thriving because of it.
The Future Ahead
After the spectacular success of the 2016 election, Russia of course continued it’s strategy elsewhere to gain similar political power. In 2016, Russia influenced the Brexit referendum, spreading similar propaganda into british media, aiming for a british exit to destabilize the EU. Considering how close the vote was overall, it may be very well possible that without Russian influence we may have seen a different result.
Russia also launched a similar attack on the 2017 elections in France, where they aimed to support Right Wing candidate Marine Le Pen. Even as they leaked her opponent’s email, she would still go on to lose the election, only winning 33% of the vote.
Don’t let the French failure fool you. The Russian government’s influence on elections is strong, and it’s been caught once again trying to demonstrate this in the 2020 election. This time, However, the attacks have become a lot stronger and a lot more dangerous. Instead of just influencing the election with troll bots, hackers have directly accessed voters registration and data. They have also been creating troll accounts impersonating as “proud boys” a white nationalist organisation. The emails contain threats of intimidation to “vote for trump.” It’s unclear how significant the impact is, or exactly what they are doing with the data, but it could further the wide divide in the nation.
The past four years of America, the violent division, it’s weakening international influence and everything else that has occured in the nation could’ve been very different without Russia’s influence. They have taken a strike at not only the United States government, but also democratic way of life. Thanks to their intervention, people cannot access the information they need. Rather, they are misled and manipulated by foreign powers to be brainwashed with conspiracy theories and to form dangerous mobs. And as more dictatorships such as Iran start releasing the power this form of cyberwarfare has, the most dangerous each election becomes. If we are to continue to have any sort of safety or trust in our democracy, than we need to catch up.