In spring 2014, a funny story crossed our social media feeds. A petition on whitehouse.gov called for “sending Alaska back to Russia,” and it quickly amassed tens of thousands of signatures. The media ran a number of amused stories on the event, and it was quickly forgotten.
The petition seemed odd to us, and so we looked at which accounts were promoting it on social media. We discovered that thousands of Russian-language bots had been repetitively tweeting links to the petition for weeks before it caught journalists’ attention.
Those were the days. Now, instead of pranking petitions, Russian influence networks online are interfering with the 2016 U.S. election. Many people, especially Hillary Clinton supporters, believe that Russia is actively trying to put Donald Trump in the White House.
But most observers are missing the point. Russia is helping Trump’s campaign, yes, but it is not doing so solely or even necessarily with the goal of placing him in the Oval Office. Rather, these efforts seek to produce a divided electorate and a president with no clear mandate to govern. The ultimate objective is to diminish and tarnish American democracy. Unfortunately, that effort is going very well indeed.
Russia’s desire to sow distrust in the American system of government is not new. It’s a goal Moscow has pursued since the beginning of the Cold War. Its strategy is not new, either. Soviet-era “active measures” called for using the “force of politics” rather than the “politics of force” to erode American democracy from within. What is new is the methods Russia uses to achieve these objectives.