But a little more than a year ago, New York Times Magazine’s Adrian Chen decided to see just how deep that particular rabbit hole went.
What he uncovered was a global, not-at-all subtle disinformation network of well-constructed hoaxes, heavily-produced YouTube videos, fake Wikipedia entries, and tens of thousands of bogus social media accounts — many of which were designed to pollute the global discourse pool here in the States. The report went so far as to highlight one disinformation effort where Putin-paid trolls posed as Americans online, directing users to a fully-realized museum in Chelsea, Manhattan professing to show the “other side” of the Ukranian conflict (you say invasion, I say tomahto).
That Putin’s trolls have extended these tactics to the US election is more than likely. In fact, in an accompanying podcast discussing his story, Chen notes that he also discovered that a number of Putin’s disinformation pugilists have been posing as Trump supporters for some time — something New Yorker contributor Ben Taub was quick to highlight this week just as the DNC e-mail hack hysteria began to peak:
Obviously this insight begins to carry new meaning as Russia’s involvement in the DNC hack becomes clearer. Many of course have spent significant calories trying to suggest a direct Putin to Trump connection; that’s certainly the narrative being pushed by a DNC with a vested interest in avoiding any real conversation about what the e-mails actually say. But it’s equally possible that Putin’s simply using Internet propaganda to pour gasoline on a rolling dumpster fire that’s already veering out of control.
This level of propaganda is something the United States — already effectively at war with itself — is not only very good at, but incredibly susceptible to. As a nation we’re already prone to over-reaction in tech policy (ban all encryption!), adore responses that make already bad situations worse (immediately launch a cyberattack on Russia!), have an echo-chamber media for whom fact checking is often optional, and an ongoing, passionate relationship with cybersecurity hypocrisy.
During election season we’re additionally susceptible to this type of attack; sportsmen in our color-coded onesies and ear plugs — ready to pounce at the faintest suggestion that our preferred
punishment candidate has anything other than the noblest of intentions. We’re wading into some very dangerous and ugly territory during what’s already been one of the most divisive years on record. Enter the latest expanded claims that the DNC hacker was likely under Putin’s employ:
“The researchers, at Arlington, Va.-based ThreatConnect, traced the self-described Romanian hacker Guccifer 2.0 back to an Internet server in Russia and to a digital address that has been linked in the past to Russian online scams. Far from being a singly, sophisticated hacker, Guccifer 2.0 is more likely a collection of people from the propaganda arm of the Russian government meant to deflect attention away from Moscow as the force behind the DNC hacks and leaks of emails, the researchers found.”
“These are bureaucrats, not sophisticated hackers,” Rich Barger, ThreatConnect’s chief intelligence officer, told The Daily Beast. In blog posts and in interviews with journalists, Barger said, Guccifer 2.0 has made inconsistent remarks and given a version of how he penetrated the DNC networks that technically don’t make sense. For instance, the hacker claims to have used a software flaw that didn’t exist until December 2015 in order to break into the DNC networks last summer.
Given countries are busy hacking each other every god damned day, Russia’s involvement here shouldn’t be a shock. Neither should Russia’s use of propaganda and hybrid warfare, a response it believes is justified retaliation to decades of this country’s own information warfare efforts. Enter the U.S. media stage left, not only hysterically surprised that nation states hack each other, but immediately losing the forest for the trees; happily insisting the actual content of the e-mails are meaningless — when they’re not busy pushing op-eds advocating all out cyber war. If this is a test of things to come, it’s one the press is already failing.
We’re already up to our necks in our own marketing, political disinformation and propaganda, leaving us incapable of differentiating Russian disinformation from home grown vitriol. We’re barely coordinated enough to agree on what cybersecurity should mean — much less differentiate hostile Russian propaganda from the vanilla rancor and bile pervading the internet on any given afternoon. Ill-prepared, poorly informed and confused as hell, there’s numerous possible responses from the United States here. Given our history with abysmal cybersecurity policy and even worse media dysfunction — none of them are likely to be any good.
Welcome to the post-truth era’s disinformation wars, ladies and gentlemen. Team “level headed” is going to need all the help it can get.