Russia's cyberwar against America isn't over — and the real target is democracy

The Soviet Union never attacked America as blatantly as Putin has — and we're in danger of losing democracy

Published March 28, 2017 8:58AM (EDT)

Vladimir Putin   (Reuters/Michael Klimentyev/Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon)
Vladimir Putin (Reuters/Michael Klimentyev/Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon)

Conventional wisdom inside the Beltway is understandably hesitant to embrace these terms, but it should be obvious to anyone following along that Russia declared war on the United States last year, and it’s a war that continues to be waged today.

Unlike hot proxy wars of the past in faraway places like Vietnam or Afghanistan, and certainly unlike the Cold War in which the Soviet Union and the United States aimed thousands of weapons of mass destruction at each other’s population centers and other strategic targets but never fired a shot, this is perhaps the first time in modern history that Russia has directly attacked the United States — on American soil no less and precision aimed at what matters most: the very integrity of our democratic process.

The other obvious and breathtaking angle to this story, which few are discussing, is exactly how and why Russia’s sustained attack on the U.S. has been so successful. We’ve barely begun to acknowledge that millions of our own people, millions of American voters on both sides of the aisle (but predominantly the conservative side, given the outcome), were manipulated into acting as unwitting foot soldiers for Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

There are dozens of reasons why Putin’s cyberwar strategy has been so successful, but it was with infuriating ease that tens of millions of Americans were suckered by Putin’s plot and acted in accordance with it. The autocratic Russian president, his oligarch allies and his intelligence services, including the Federal Security Service (or FSB) and the GRU, recognized an emerging perfect storm in America that included a convergence of the following:

1. A distrust in institutions and the news media.

2. The emergence of almost universal social-media usage.

3. The willingness to repeat outrageous rumors or fake news to help boost personal social-media branding.

4. Political polarization and the accompanying emergence of information bubbles, confirmation bias and echo chambers.

5. The metastasizing of the post-Watergate misconception that anyone can or should be president, leading to the candidacy of a reality-show celebrity named Trump. (Today’s folksy “have a beer” qualification nearly supersedes other qualifications.)

The ingenuity of Putin’s war against democracy is that he was able to successfully exploit these five characteristics of our discourse in order to turn our own people against us. Let’s be clear: Americans are deeply vulnerable to digital manipulation and weaponized social-media hoaxes. Putin observed the desperately weakened condition of our discourse through the lens of a seasoned KGB veteran; he viewed it all as exploitable weakness and subsequently recruited malicious hackers linked to the Russian intelligence community, which acts with relatively significant impunity compared to its U.S. counterpart. With the apparent support of WikiLeaks and quite likely Donald Trump’s inner circle as well, Putin injected countless volumes of disinformation into our virtual bloodstream.

From there, Putin’s entire gambit could have fallen apart. An informed and conscientious society would generally recognize agitprop and disinformation as it scrolls across its smartphones and computer screens. Sadly, we’re no longer a conscientious or informed society. We believe what we choose to believe, based not on evidence or peer-reviewed facts, but on ideology and whether the information we encounter conforms to the rules of a particular team. We’ve also decided that each of us is an expert in everything. (We’re definitely not.) In other words, if your team wants to believe John Podesta ran a sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington pizzeria, then presenting falsified evidence of such a thing will be greeted with enthusiasm and the currency of the modern age: follows, "likes", shares and retweets.

The blind acceptance of Russian propaganda, because it happened to include “facts” that some of us were starved to read, is what turned otherwise decent though gullible Americans into Putin’s infantry, virally blitzing the Kremlin’s message through the trenches of the political internet, attacking and converting more voters with zombie lies. Trench by trench, Facebook group by Facebook group, Americans executed Putin’s attacks for him.

The hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Podesta files aside, the effort to trick Americans into being recruited as Russian cyber-soldiers began by turning Democrats who supported Bernie Sanders against the predicted front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Using “bots” and human resources, Putin lobbed fake news and ridiculous conspiracy theories into social media. Voters who were predisposed to distrust Clinton willingly shared these stories, poisoning everyone who inexplicably wanted to be poisoned. It was textbook “divide and conquer” — split the enemy lines and turn their own cannon into the exposed flanks.

Once the presumptive nominee was decided, the same process was employed to boost the prospects of the Republican candidate, Trump. We’ve learned recently that Russia-based bots were deployed strategically at times when Trump’s polling numbers diminished, boosting Trump when he needed it the most. This happened on top of what was already underway: more weaponized fake news and hacked documents tweaking American voyeurism and predisposition to see conspiracies where they don’t exist — that were perhaps released in direct coordination with the Trump campaign. Consequently, a deeply flawed Republican nominee with a list of scandals that would have crushed any other candidate was able to slide into the White House by way of the most freakish, alternative-reality election night since 2000.

Knowing what we know now, it’s no longer a stretch to report that Trump was placed in office by Putin. But it only happened because millions of Americans unknowingly volunteered to serve as enemy combatants, undermining and betraying their own country and their own democratic elections. Make no mistake: Putin’s attack was less about electing Donald Trump and more about turning Americans against America. Whether you were suckered by Putin or voted for Trump based on fake news, we all suffer from a skewed view of U.S. elections today. We’re all more suspicious about whether our elections are on the level, and we should be. Putin’s goal was to goad us into asking the perpetual question: How can we possibly trust the outcomes of future elections knowing that Russia preselected our president years ago and then set about guaranteeing that outcome by turning our people against us?

This is the next colossal problem to solve. Once we weed out Putin’s quislings inside the White House, we have no choice but to pursue a far greater task: re-establishing the integrity of our elections while re-establishing facts and reality as the basis for our decisions. There are too many of us who sadly and disturbingly can’t tell the difference between foreign propaganda — fake news — and legitimate news. This has to change or else Putin will have won, and democracy as we know it will cease to exist.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.