On December 9th of last year, The New York Times published a groundbreaking article titled “Russian Hackers Acted to Aid Trump in Election, U.S. Says” in response to multiple intelligence community reports concluding that Russian operatives attempted to influence the general election in President Trump’s favor against former Secretary Clinton. The article provides a thorough analysis of how and when Russia was able to enter the American cyberspace: by hacking Clinton campaign and DNC emails, propagating “fake news” on social media outlets, and undermining important Democratic party officials. These efforts effectively fabricated a political climate that, in the end, hurt the Democratic party candidate and helped the Republican party candidate come to power. A groundbreaking revelation, indeed.
The narrative that Russia infiltrated and influenced the presidential election of 2016 has been one of, if not the, the most reported-on stories in recent months, as media outlets and politicians on both sides of the aisle have decried and denounced it as unprecedented and undemocratic. Many journalists and reporters have eloquently offered their highly-nuanced opinions on the topic, and yet, there appears to be something missing.
A brief segment of The Rachel Maddow Show on March 16th picked up on what is missing in the overall “Russia” narrative, however. Though Maddow did not have the time allotment to fully flesh her argument out, she did, in fact, raise the rather disturbing point that the Presidential election was not the only victim of Russia’s hacking operation—Democratic house candidates were as well. Maddow’s segment most likely ties back to a New York Times article that similarly laid out the specifics for how Russians affected South Florida congressional campaigns during election season.
The scenarios described in the article offer profound insight into how political races can drastically change if cybersecurity is infringed upon. Annette Taddeo, a runner-up in her district’s election states, “I just can’t describe it any other way. Our entire internal strategy plan was made public, and suddenly all this material was out there and could be used against me.” This illustrates that the hackers targeted politicians they believed would be particularly vulnerable to leaks, regardless of whether or not the information leaked was controversial. In other words, Taddeo’s leaked documents were not compromising to how the citizens in her district viewed her character, but rather they compromised the very foundations and strategies of the campaign she was running, which was equally as destructive. One can conclude that these hackers gathered a significant amount of voter-attitude information in the districts before calculating who to attack. After the proper information was collected, the trigger was pulled, and chaos in South Florida’s political arena accordingly ensued.
This is disturbing. The notion that a foreign actor, or any influence, for that matter, can uninvitedly sway important elections whenever it feels the need to is alarming, to say the least.
It is important to note that the United States could potentially be on the verge of a new normal with regard to public opinion about foreign officials hacking domestic elections. The American public’s indifference to the intelligence community’s reports about the Russian hacking of the general election is only part of this new normal. In addition, there could be a large increase in foreign influence, perhaps by Russia, in the upcoming 2018 midterm congressional elections, which could have grave consequences for the Democrats.
There are 33 Senate-seat elections taking place in 2018 with Democrats hoping to keep their 23 already-held seats in control. Certain races, such as Indiana and Pennsylvania, may be contentious, as some incumbent Democrats will attempt to hold seats in largely-Republican states where President Trump secured the electoral votes. To many Democrats, it becomes understandably difficult to not be overly grieved that Republicans have control of the both houses of Congress. Had Russia not intervened, however, many of those Democrats would most likely accept the losses as “politics as usual” in the ebb and flow of political party control. Republicans would (probably) feel the same sentiment if the roles were reversed.
“Politics as usual” may not be applicable in 2018, however. Who is to say there won’t be more hacking efforts by Russian operatives? Having already successfully influenced the largest election in the nation, it would come as no surprise if hackers attempted to infiltrate and hack campaign offices; therefore, perhaps putting undeserving Republicans in office. Those who are less wary about this occurring argue that foreign influences don’t actually hack elections and voting booths, thus, in essence, they are not hacking or really influencing the election. That misses the point completely, quite frankly.
Influencing elections can simply be changing voter attitudes and providing certain candidates with unfair advantages over others. Any inkling of foreign influence on congressional elections in 2018 should alarm and disturb all politicians in Washington, no matter how small or insignificant. Action needs to be taken to ensure these issues do not persist—only time will tell if the United States properly defends itself against the undermining of its democracy.
- James Sabia