By Alex Stamos
For two years, much of our political discussion has been dominated by the looming spectre of Russian interference in our democracy. This attention was not unwarranted: In 2016, a coalition of Russian organizations, from private troll farms to uniformed intelligence officers of the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, waged a three-pronged attack against our democracy. This included pushing divisive narratives on social media, hacking and releasing private emails to manipulate the media and forays into hacking our election infrastructure.
While Russian campaigns have continued to operate since 2016, a collaboration between government agencies, tech companies and independent research groups have done much to roll back the disinformation networks Russian actors built over years. In this cycle we have yet to see the activity you would expect if these networks were fully rebuilt, and the relative quiet going into the midterms has many observers asking: “Where are the Russians?”
The relative quiet going into the midterms has many observers asking: “Where are the Russians?”
There are a couple of interpretations for this silence. The first possibility is that most of Russia’s information warfare assets are sitting the 2018 midterms out. There are several reasons why this would make sense: With 435 House, 35 Senate and 36 gubernatorial races on the ballot Tuesday, the ability to shape an overall outcome beneficial to Russia’s geostrategic interests is limited. Building disinformation capabilities takes an investment of time and resources, and it would be reasonable to reserve most of those resources for what promises to be a contentious Democratic primary (which unofficially starts Wednesday) and a divisive 2020 election.
The second possibility is that Russian interference will be more subtle and deniable this time around. There was a certain air of impunity to Russia’s 2016 activity, with both government and non-governmental actors often operating without sufficiently covering their tracks. This is not wholly unlike the successful and attempted assassinations that have been traced back to Russian agents, a link made obvious by the use of exotic nerve agents and radioactive materials and the obvious parading of intelligence assets on state TV. This time around, the oligarchs and intelligence officers behind these groups could very well have decided to pursue the same goals in a much less blatant fashion.
An overarching theme of Russia’s efforts has emphasizing the risks of free and fair elections, at least compared to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brand of rigged democracy.
If so, what goal could they have? An overarching theme of Russia’s efforts has emphasizing the risks of free and fair elections, at least compared to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brand of rigged democracy. Even in a highly distributed election such as the midterms, attacking the certainty Americans have in our democratic processes is still possible.
As a country, we have already created ripe conditions for casting doubt on our democratic legitimacy. Many states continue to use insecure electronic voting machines, and five states use systems with no paper trails at all. Building on their exploratory attacks in 2016, it would not necessarily be difficult for Russian attackers to crash or demonstrate control of Internet-connected systems in the 10,000 local election authorities. Most of these attacks would not be able to influence the final vote totals, but the propaganda value would still be great.
Another option for foreign groups would be to create the impression of continued Russian influence. Anybody can create a handful of fake social media accounts to push aggressive memes or misleading stories; the goal of the social media platforms should be to reduce the spread and influence of these accounts before they create large followings. We should be wary of anybody who claims the existence of a vast network of influential accounts without hard evidence, and we should be especially wary of any claims that specific candidates were assisted by said network.
There are some hints that this tactic might already be in the works. Last week, a known member of the Russian trolling ecosystem who goes by “William” posted a video claiming that he is now a whistleblower and in fear for his life. In the video, which is shot in what looks like a small apartment with carefully arranged Russian-language product labels, William shows off a purported internal document that instructs trolls to support prominent candidates like Texas senate hopeful Beto O’Rouke. The video sets up the argument that any surprise win by O’Rouke was achieved with Russian help. There is no need to do the hard work of actually building and operating a disinfo network if one can convince the American people it exists and was effective in changing election outcomes.
What should we do about any attempts to make these claims? First off, we need to resist the temptation to grant credence to unsupported theories that happen to correspond with our prior beliefs. Unlike in 2016, the major tech platforms and several federal agencies have dedicated election security teams monitoring and investigating any attempts to hack election systems or influence our national discourse. We should, of course, feel free to discuss allegations of vote tampering or influence operations, but we need to be cautious and skeptical about any attempts to imply that our democratic system is rigged.
In the end, the ability to defeat this enemy lies not with any government agency or Silicon Valley giant, but with our citizenry. We can choose to not be manipulated. As with all bullies, Russia’s greatest fear is not being defeated, but being ignored.
Alex Stamos is an adjunct professor at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation and a fellow at the Hoover Institution. He was previously the Chief Security Officer of Facebook and is currently the NBC News & MSNBC Cybersecurity Analyst.
This article was first published on NBC News' Think. Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.