Vladimir Putin (Image: AAP)
Vladimir Putin (Image: AAP)

The release of the JFK files showed that the Russians were fans. Khrushchev told Kennedy to his face in Vienna, “You know, Mr Kennedy, we voted for you.” Robert Kennedy Jnr met with Russian representatives regularly and developed a terse but effective relationship.

Anyone was better than Nixon, according to Khrushchev.

Ten presidents later we can see that as much as times change, they remain the same, even if the US now has the living embodiment of a dumpster fire and his retinue of toothy toupees acting as family members with security clearances in the White House.

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One thing that has fundamentally changed is media. Sixty-seven per cent of Americans get their news online, mostly from social media platforms like Facebook, which they then feed back into the platform as online debate, spreading news further.

The Russians have used this to their advantage, attempting to influence the US election with bots, disinformation and state-sponsored trolls from the Internet Research Agency in a dedicated campaign to get Trump elected because anyone was better than Clinton.
In the inevitable follow up Congressional hearings, Russia’s impact on social media platforms was measured.

Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch estimates 150 million Americans were exposed to Russian disinformation on their platform. Twitter suggests that over 36,000 Russian accounts pumped out 1.4 million US election tweets in the final stretch of the election. Google took tens of thousands of dollars from Russian groups running ads about the election and Russian-backed groups unloaded over a 1,000 videos onto YouTube.

Their testimony is typically Silicon Valley, men in bespoke suits sidestepping guilt over damning data they swear will be fixed with a great new algorithm – identifying paid political advertising. Both Facebook and Twitter have started the ball rolling on this, which will be echoed in an upcoming bill dubbed the “Honest Ads Act”.

These factors may have lead to a win for Trump, but the election outcome is secondary to the broader impact: Russia loves election interference and is perfecting its savvy seagull approach.

Which is why none of this database hairshirting will do anything to remove Russian interference as a threat in the upcoming 2018 Midterms because they disregard how Putin and the Internet Research Agency are willing to successfully adapt and subvert existing structures for their purpose.

The Honest Ads Act won’t stop Russia’s multiple attempts to hack voter registration databases nor repair voter distrust, sown years earlier in continuing voter suppression as well as Bush’s case of the hanging chads in Florida. Again, Russia took an existing vulnerability and weaponised it for its own political purpose.

The rigid focus on paid political advertising overlooks how much Russia relies on American institutions like the traditional press to do their disinformation work for free. When the US media fell on the DNC server hacks with continued, unrelenting coverage, they used information sourced from Russian state sponsored groups Fancy Bear (short term) and Cozy Bear (long term) as journalism sources.

In essence, as Russia hacked the DNC servers, they effectively also hacked US media, who then did Russia’s work for free, releasing more content that flooded social media in a sea of likes and shares.

Russian groups have progressed from external attacks alone – they have used America as a weapon against itself.

If the US wants to end Russian election interference ahead of the 2018 midterms, it has to tackle a deeper concern: that a hostile government can use American groups as destabilising weapons and profit from it at the same time.

The Paradise Papers show that political control and profit are often intertwined, leading to what Bernie Sanders has called an international oligarchy controlling the global economy. In a deliciously ironic leak, the papers show Russian state subsidies heavily invested in both Facebook and Twitter, as mediated by Jared Kushner’s business partner Yuri Milner.

These social media giants believe they have a business case to prioritise their profit over other’s politics. Colin Stretch, the same man schilling Facebook’s proactive approach to identify paid political advertising spent years refusing the Federal Election Commission’s request to note paid political advertising, claiming it would “stand in the way of innovation”.

Meanwhile, Google is caveat-twitching about the Honest Ads Act, saying they like “the goals of the legislation” but would “like to work through the nuances to make it work for all of us”. By “make it work”, they mean make money which makes sense given the search monopoly changed its famous maxim “don’t be evil” to “you can make money without being evil”.

As more men in expensive suits divide their time between congressional hearings and investment meetings, there is a touch of Beckett’s absurdity to it all. The Russian Government will continue to interfere in elections to the American Government’s feigned surprise and protestations of purity.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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