We all have our preferences. We favor certain clothing or electronic brands, etc. over others. Some people prefer Express brand jeans. Others swear allegiance to Apple products. That same selectivity must also be applied to consumption of news sources. Watching the first day of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s public hearing on Russia’s interference with the 2016 election campaign last week, one thing was clear: sources matter. The future of our liberty may very well hinge on our ability to work together in conjunction with trusted sources such as the Intelligence Community to purvey the news and separate fact from fiction.
The witnesses in last week’s hearings unanimously concurred that the Russians’ endgame is to divide and conquer. By pitting American citizens against each other, we are weakened as a country. Although “hacking” is usually the preeminent issue when considering Russian involvement in our election, last week’s hearings revealed another, more insidious facet: disinformation. Specifically, the Russian strategy of launching disinformation campaigns (active measures), through the use of “fake news.” That term has seemingly reached a saturation point in today’s public awareness. However, it is one that is extremely important to consider, especially when perusing content in today’s accelerated and polarized media environment. If we do not take our news consumption seriously, the Russians will continue to use our failure to do so as a weapon against us.
We must judge the veracity of headlines by the source which provides it. In this case, name brands matter. Just as a Cadillac is an easy choice over a Pinto – when evaluating a headline that catches our eye, we must also consider the source (brand). If it is authored by a reputable journalistic institution, such as the AP (Associated Press), Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, or CNN, it is a credible story. But if the headline is supplied by a seemingly innocuous outlet, website, or person, it is more than likely disreputable. Twitter “bots” help promulgate bogus stories by tweeting them often enough to infiltrate trending topics, thus weaving bogus stories in with those that are real.
It is important to note that the Russians are not the only country employing such cyber warfare in their arsenal. Countries such as China do as well, but in this case, it was the unanimous agreement of the experts who testified before last week’s Committee that Russia was the culprit in the cyber attacks on our candidates and media in the 2016 election campaign.
The active measures campaign is not over. Foreign policy and cyber security expert Clinton Watts revealed at the hearing that Speaker Ryan was the target of attacks in the aftermath of the AHCA failure. Senator Rubio disclosed that his former presidential campaign staffers were targets of attempted Russian hacks as recently as last week. Watts observed that Russian Twitter users focus their tweeting at the President when he is online, in an effort to influence him. Watts also made a shocking observation: the President has periodically used active measures himself.
Watts explained that the success of active measures in the recent election is due in part to the President’s own employment of them against his opponents. Watts noted that on August 14, 2016, Paul Manafort cited a fake news story about a nonexistent terrorist attack in an interview with Fox News. On November 11, Trump mentioned a fake news story from Sputnik News (a Russian outlet) on the campaign trail. He has also espoused conspiratorial and divisive claims such as the election being rigged; Senator Ted Cruz (and President Obama) not being a U.S. Citizen; and the wiretapping of Trump Tower. As such, Watts surmised that coordination occurred between the Russians and the Trump campaign, and they cooperated regarding propaganda (supplying it both ways).
The Senate, House, and FBI are investigating the correlations between the Trump campaign and Russia, but regardless of the outcome, we must still contend with active measures. Until we get a universal agreement on what the facts truly are; and who can be trusted as a clearinghouse to disseminate fact from fiction, we will continue to be plagued with Russian propaganda and fake news.
Clinton Watts’ testimony was an incredibly informative to watch. One of the most crucial aspects was his concise explanation of Russia’s intentions and how they seek to bring them to fruition. Watts breaks it down: “Russia hopes to win the Second Cold War through the force of politics, as opposed to the politics of force.” While they celebrate the success of candidates who support their worldview, Watts explains that “…winning a single election is not their end goal.” He states that Russia, through their active measures campaigns, are seeking to topple democracies, and their efforts to do so are five-fold. According to Watts, their methods are:
- Undermining citizen confidence in democratic governance
- Exacerbating divisive political fissures
- Eroding trust between citizens and their elected officials and their institutions
- Popularize Russian policy agendas within foreign populations
- Create general distrust or confusion over information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction
The Russians also seek to exacerbate cultural divides, and stoke fears of global and financial calamity. They do so by promoting sensationalized stories regarding those topics. By accomplishing these objectives, the Kremlin can dismantle democracies from the inside out. Their ultimate goal is to dissolve NATO and the UN; thus taking their divide-and-conquer strategy worldwide.
Such a complicated and potentially devastating prospect has a somewhat simple solution: we must stand united as citizens; the media must focus on factual accuracy rather than speed, and we must trust institutions such as the Intelligence Community as a trustworthy judge of facts. If we stand together, we will be able to withstand even the most dire of threats. And we will continue to not only to enjoy our own liberty, but to serve as the political and moral beacon for the world – for all who seek peace, prosperity, and freedom – as well.