‘Bit scary isn’t it? I can’t wait for it to be over – whatever happens.’
You probably heard some derivative of this phrase uttered throughout the latter half of 2016, as the frenzied battle for the next US president became impossible to ignore even in Britain, who played the role of uncomfortable bystander. The word ‘battle’ being unfortunately appropriate as we watched Trump and Clinton trade blow after blow, any inkling of previously established political ‘no-go’ zones obliterated as we witnessed every graphic detail of election stratagem that each side had concocted. In the end it was Hillary Clinton who suffered a bitter defeat – against a man who had once proudly boasted about grabbing women by their genitals. The collective feeling which followed was one of despondence and disillusionment. But at least it was over. Wasn’t it? No. Of course not.
The US election odyssey continues – or rather, the remnants of it, are haunting the new president-elect. Since the beginning there have been allegations that the voting system may not be as wholly democratic as it appears. Trump introduced what I like to call ‘Schrödinger’s ballot’ – aka, the notion that the voting process can be simultaneously both fixed and not fixed at the same time dependent upon whether or not you win.
Recently scandal materialised in a way we were not necessarily expecting – Russia. The NSA, FBI and CIA have worked collaboratively to produce a report stating that Russia purposely undermined Hillary Clinton in order to aid a Donald Trump win. The US Government and other cybersecurity experts also state that Vladimir Putin was at the helm of Russia’s interference with the election. However, there is a noticeable reluctance by news sources to name specific individuals or organisations. Russia is treated as a singular united threat – an all seeing leviathan capable of getting its hands on whatever sensitive, confidential information it requires. So nothing like the NSA who conducted the report then.
In order to protect the interests of the intelligence community, the powers behind the report have refused to reveal the assessment process for asserting Russia’s involvement. This of course is about as useful as a chocolate teapot in terms of authenticating the claims made and does zero favours for the NSA’s transparency track record. Regardless, the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) came to the following conclusions:
Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign aimed directly at the US presidential election with the goal to undermine the public’s faith in the democratic process. The influence campaign also aimed to undermine Clinton and the Democrats to help Trump win, as the candidate clearly favoured by Putin.
The so-called influence campaign included a mix of covert cyber activity and overt propaganda. Hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers was the main cyber espionage that took place, with suggestions that the Russian government may have been able to access them for a year or more. Much of the ‘overt’ propaganda influence was perpetrated through social media sites such as Twitter, which itself became a self-styled abuse colosseum for candidates throughout much of the election.
When the rumours about Russian involvement in the US election first emerged many of us were left scratching our heads. Originally it had all been Hillary’s fault – as a corrupted politician it would only seem right for her to ‘misplace’ thousands of emails she didn’t want the public to get their hands on. The idea of a separate entity to the Clinton v Trump death match being involved completed messed up our dichotomy of good and bad – or probably more bad and not as bad but still sort of bad.
These revelations have created something of a dilemma for the US, and more widely democracy in general. Democracy is as cultural as it is political in the US – there is no better way to showcase your autonomy than to decide who will get to lead you. Yet the public are consistently told who to vote for. Candidates gain millions from sponsors in order to expand their coverage and fund their campaigns. They pay celebrities to endorse them in the hope of capturing the ever swinging public opinion. So at what point does influence become biased and therefore – undemocratic?
Well for starters, transparency once again becomes an issue. Usually with enough digging, the public are made aware of how these candidates are selling themselves, where the money is going and where it is coming from and they can choose to do with that information what they will. The underground nature of Putin’s (and Moscow’s, and the Kremlin’s and so forth…) operation is what makes this sort of influence so nefarious – although, the US media are hardly in a position to take the moral high ground when it comes to personally attacking a politician.
But do people even care about the moral implications of influence? For every mistruth orchestrated by Russia there is almost certainly one to match offered by a candidate. Hacking the DNC makes the democrats look untrustworthy and yet Trump’s pledge to invest in more nuclear weapons makes him a global threat. This balancing act is catastrophic for democracy as all of a sudden we are unable to make a self-informed decision about what is the right thing to do. Instead we are left to whittle down two choices until we reach one slightly less shit than the other – better known as the lesser of two evils. And this process breeds despondency and disillusionment. Why bother with democracy when those are your only options? Suddenly, it seems that influence is insignificant.
Trump, for possibly the first time since this epic began, has attempted to diffuse the allegations of Russian interference. He first stated that the hacks possibly came from a ’14-year-old in his bedroom’ and then emphasised that the hacks were being exaggerated by the Democrats to downplay their monumental failure, despite overwhelming and damning evidence from his own government. Trump has achieved multifaceted success by taking this stance, further managing to humiliate the Democrats which divides the left and keeps the Republicans in power longer, downplay the anxieties about the democratic process in the US and strengthen his ties with Russia by refusing to point the finger.
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Words by Natalie Wellings