Election Interference: Technology Has Changed but Russia Hasn’t


Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 23, 2019 (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS)

Making the click-through worthwhile: everything you ever wanted to know about my talks in Austria about foreign disinformation and social media, a call for a new approach to getting leverage over China, and warnings about how some countries don’t change.

Talking About Russian Hacking . . . In Front of the Russians

I’ll be honest, I was pretty nervous before I departed for this week’s trip to Austria, because I knew I’d be speaking to some pretty important people and feared that I would only be telling them things they already knew.

You can read a version of my presentation here, a pretty complete soup-to-nuts review and assessment of what Russia and the Internet Research Agency did in the 2016 presidential election, what measures have been taken since, why you didn’t hear as much about these problems during the 2018 midterms, and what those of us outside the big-tech companies and the government can do about foreign disinformation on social media. The good news is that I had something new and surprising for just about everyone I spoke to, and the reception was extraordinarily warm and appreciative. My thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Vienna for setting up this guest-speakers program.

My first stop was the Austrian National Defense Academy, speaking to about a dozen representatives of the Austrian military and Ministry of the Interior, hosted by Alexander Dubowy of the Institute for Security Policy, an Austrian think-tank and a member of the science Commission of the Austrian Ministry of Defense.

As you would expect, the men in uniform and gathered officials had terrific questions about where it’s all going. One high-ranking military official pointed out that while right now bots and trolls are fairly easy to spot, like those name-initial-and-random-numbers accounts you’ve probably seen on Twitter, the Russians will adapt and learn. And it’s more than the Russians; in my talk I mentioned recent cases of the Iranians using similar methods. The officers noted that while Russia is probably the near-term risk in this realm, they’re particularly concerned about China as the greater long-term risk, in a wide variety of realms. I was told that a recent group of Chinese military visitors to the Austrian Defense Academy had wandered off and was caught taking pictures of everything.

In the afternoon, I went to the headquarters  of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, probably the most important international-security organization that you’ve heard next to nothing about. While the OSCE name implies that focuses on Europe, its member states include Canada, the United States, Russia, and a good number of other countries in the broader region, including most of North Africa. (My talk was co-hosted by the American delegation and  the Canadian delegation, so I raise my glass of Molson’s in appreciation.  My philosophy can be summarized as anti-Putin and pro-poutine.)

Shortly before I began my remarks, I was informed that the OSCE tries to not focus on criticizing one country during their discussions. As you can probably guess, trying to tell the story of foreign disinformation in the 2016 elections without focusing too much on Russia is like trying to discuss the New Testament without focusing too much on Jesus. I had some discussion about what the Iranian government had done in this vein since 2016, but there was really no way to get around the fact that my talk was going to kick Russia up and down the street for what they did in 2016. Then I was informed that the second person to RSVP for my presentation was . . . part of the delegation from Russia, and they seemed quite interested to hear what I had to say.

Visions of polonium soup and Bulgarian umbrellas danced in my head. We agreed that because I was there as a private citizen and not as a representative of the United States government, I would preface my remarks to emphasize that and then go through my remarks as planned. I didn’t hear any booing, no one threw anything at me and if the Russian representatives were there, they were very well behaved. Speciba, comrade. In all likelihood, I’m just not important enough for them to get all that upset about. Then again, if I keel over in mysterious circumstances in the near future, you know where to point the finger.

Day two was the whirlwind, beginning with an interview with Eva Zelechowski, senior online editor of the Austrian daily Weiner Zeitung. You can read the interview in German here; having run it through Google Translate I think I was pretty accurately quoted although perhaps a few nuances get lost here and there in the translation. Then it was off to the Austria’s bilingual radio station FM4, where host Joanna King had a lot of questions about U.S. policy towards Iran; judging by the tone of her questions, we’re a bunch of warmongering aggressors who are picking on those poor easygoing Iranian mullahs. Go figure.

After that, it was off to lunch with some young journalists hosted by Nikolaus Koller. The European Parliamentary elections are coming up, and posters for candidate and parties are all over Vienna. We don’t have anything quite like this in the United States; I suppose the equivalent for us would be something like electing representatives to a parliament of NAFTA or NATO, with a parliament meeting several countries away. (The EU Parliament actually works in two locations, meeting and operating in Strasbourg, France, for one week every month, adding about $127 million to their operating costs. The current Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, thinks the practice is wasteful, and has irked the French government by urging the union to “end the traveling circus of the EU Parliament.”)

But the level of public interest in the EU elections is significantly lower than in the national elections, for a variety of reasons. For starters, it’s further away and feels more distant, but also because the elections process is wildly complicated. They’re reducing the number of seats in the EU parliament in anticipation of Brexit. In some countries, voters cast ballots for parties; in others, they cast ballots for specific candidates. In Austria, everyone 16 and older is allowed to vote, they use preferential voting — meaning you rank your order of preference — and a party has to reach at least four percent to be elected to the parliament. So you see posters for particular candidates, but you rank your vote by party, and then the party selects who gets sent to parliament depending upon the proportion of the national vote. You could call the whole process “byzantine,” but most of Austria was just beyond the borders the Byzantine Empire.

Nonetheless, the young Austrians I spoke with were particularly worried about the sort of social-media mischief in their elections that we saw in the 2016 presidential election — and there’s evidence the Russian government is up to its old tricks. (Keep in mind, this is something of a self-selecting sample; you don’t come to hear a visiting American journalist talk about these issues if you don’t care about these issues.)

After that it was off to University of Vienna where I was able to speak to the students of Professor Homero Gil de Zuniga in the department of communication, another batch of bright young people asking great questions. One of the students had previously served in the Bosnian government and asked about The Weed Agency; we agreed that the frustrations of life in a national government’s bureaucracy is perhaps the one universal constant of governance seen around the world. Another of the students was Turkish, and we talked a little bit about the recent Istanbul mayoral election that represented a significant defeat for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s party, AKP. Erdoğan basically threw a tantrum and declared that election didn’t count, and that they would have a revote. The stakes for the second vote are significantly higher, essentially deciding whether a symbolic rebuke to the ruling party will be allowed to stand.

Then it was off to the U.S. embassy’s “Amerika Haus,” a forum they use for guest speakers to do Q&A with local journalists expats and anyone else interested in American life and governance, moderated by Anna Maria Wallner of the Austrian daily Die Presse. This audience of about 125 people was a fascinating collection of expats, locals interested in American culture, and students. I heard a few questions and comments in the vein of, “It’s this fair play for all of the times the United States has interfered in other country’s elections” — and, as far as I could tell, these were not Russian propagandists; this perspective was driven by a realism that as long as countries saw stakes for themselves in other countries’ elections, efforts at propaganda and disinformation like this were almost guaranteed to occur. Indeed, this will be nearly impossible to stamp out, but the fact remains, if you’re a foreign intelligence service, we don’t want you messing around in our elections or our public discourse. We’ve got tools to push back, and we will use them.

Meanwhile, in the Trade War with China . . . 

As mentioned above, some of my Austrian hosts asked whether the Chinese government had engaged in similar efforts. As far as I’ve seen they have not, but this may simply reflect that the Chinese government has other methods of shaping its image in the United States and other countries — from having vast swaths of the American business community willing to whatever it takes to maintain access to the Chinese market, to Chinese-government-funded “Confucius Institutes on American college campus.

This morning the editors urge President Trump to revive our participation in a Trans-Pacific Partnership-style agreement, creating a trading bloc that would present a united front against China. They add:

We should also make a new commitment to bringing cases against Chinese abuses before the World Trade Organization. This administration has followed its predecessors in declining to take full advantage of that forum, even though it has had some success in forcing reform. And we should work in concert with other countries that have suffered from these abuses, which may require us to end less pressing trade conflicts with Europe, Canada, and Japan.

If we want to fight a trade war, it’s probably best to do it against the country that presents the most pressing and long-term problems, and with as many allies at our side as possible.

Technology Changes . . . Countries Don’t Always Change

One of my points in my talk is that I discuss the KGB’s disinformation and propaganda efforts on U.S. soil during the Cold War, and I note, “The technology has changed, but Russia has not.” A lot of people nodded in agreement, but a few vehemently disagreed — and made what struck me as good faith arguments.

But I remain unpersuaded, and today’s column by Jay Nordlinger seems particularly pertinent:

People like to emphasize the discontinuity between the Soviet Union and modern Russia. But there are also continuities to consider. I find that I have not considered them enough. Twenty years ago, David Pryce-Jones and others told me that the tragedy of the formerly Communist nations was that they had not had Nuremberg trials. There had been no equivalent of denazification. Everyone wanted to “move on” and sweep under the rug.

I always understood this concept, of course. I’m not sure I grasped the full importance of it.

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Finally, spotted on a bar shelf at a restaurant in Vienna . . . Brexit Whiskey. I hear it doesn’t go down easy, but many insist the taste is eventually satisfying.

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