Saturday, November 26, 2016

Did Russian propaganda operations decide the US Presidential election?

Several of my Facebook friends and Twitter users I follow are linking this short column from the Washington Post, Americans keep looking away from the election’s most alarming story 11/25/2016 by Eric Chenoweth of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. He makes a case that Russian fake-news/disinformation/espionage operations were a decisive factor in the outcome of the Presidential election.

A First World War view of the Czarist Russian war dragon

Since much of the claim is based on assumptions about obscure cyberspace operations for which almost all of us not working for the NSA have to rely on secondary and tertiary expert sources or more distant ones, I'm feeling pretty modest about my own ability to make judgments about the story.

Chenoweth (or the editors) evidently found it necessary to put his own declaration of modesty near the end, "Part of the Russian operation’s success is that we cannot measure the effect." Which raises the obvious question: If we have no idea of the effect that even the more plausible examples of possible Russian disinformation operations had on the election, then just why should we be particularly worried about it? But that qualifier comes two paragraphs after he says, "From the Russian perspective, the success of this operation can hardly be overstated." Maybe he means it cannot be overstated because it can't even be measured. But I'm pretty sure that's not the impression the column is leaving.

There's also the problem that Hillary Clinton won significantly more votes than the presumed Electoral College winner and alleged Russian favorite Donald Trump received. So it would seem to be a more obvious conclusion that whatever disinformation mischief Putin's government was up to, it failed to have the desired effect. At least that's a more obvious conclusion than what Chenoweth literally argues, which is that the fact that we CAN'T TELL whether it had any effect at all means the alleged operations were a SUCCESS.

And you don't have to have an OCD streak to click on some of the links included. The link to the claim, "U.S. intelligence agencies determined that the Russian government actively interfered in our elections," is to the Homeland Security press release of October 7. That statement was certainly worded to heavily imply that the Russian government was behind the hacks on the Democratic Party. And that may be a perfectly reasonable assumption. But what the Homeland Security statement also says very explicitly is, "Some states have also recently seen scanning and probing of their election-related systems, which in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company. However, WE ARE NOT NOW IN A POSITION TO ATTRIBUTE THIS ACTIVITY TO THE RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT." (my emphasis) Since it was created during the Cheney-Bush Administration, Homeland Security has never been known for excessive restraint in raising red flags about foreign threats.

Since Chenoweth is asking us to consider the source, it's worth noting that the Washington Post has also been known as Neocon Central for a while and is noted for its editorial enthusiasm for hawkish foreign policy. Chenoweth's Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe is the successor group to the Committee in Support of Solidarity, formed in 1981 to support the Solidarity opposition movement in Poland and for which Chenoweth was also a spokesperson. Such organizations are frequently funded by the US State Department and/or individuals and lobbies interested in promoting hawkish US foreign policies. But WE ARE NOT NOW IN A POSITION TO ATTRIBUTE THIS ACTIVITY TO THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT OR ARMS LOBBYISTS. So by Chenoweth's logic, we've determined that the State Department and war lobbyists ARE behind it. And the very fact that we have no proof at all that such is the case is a measure of the great success of these hidden funders!

There are lots of reasons to disapprove of Putin's government. Since we Americans are Exceptional, we generally don't feel we need any special reason to criticize other countries' governments where, for example, the winner of a Presidential election might not be allowed to take office! That's why all the other countries in the world want to be just like America. After all, as Hillary told the Veterans of Foreign Wars last August, the US is "the greatest country that has ever been created on the face of the earth for all of history.” Also the most modest.

And I don't share the admiration that rightwing populist parties like Marine Le Pen's National Front in France show for Putin's brand of nationalist authoritarianism and promotion of Islamophobia.

But there are also substantial reasons for having recounts and audits of elections in a number of states that have voting procedures and equipment that do not measure up to "best practices," to use the long-since-stale management consultants' term. The possibility of direct interference by the Russian government doesn't strike me as one that needs to be high on the list.

Democrats don't need to worry, though. The way it's already unfolding, the Trump Family Business Administration will have plenty of dubious foreign intrigue going on for us to complain about.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I'm married to a foreign national, of the Austrian variety. Who knows what strange foreigner ideas she may be insinuating into my head by subliminal recordings or whatever? Also, Austria was OCCUPIED BY THE RUSSIANS for ten years after the Second World War!!!

Here is a useful discussion from Robert Fitrakis for the real reasons we need some recounts and audits, Did Trump Win Through Vote Flipping and Vote Stripping? The Real News 11/26/2016:

Gerald Sussman wrote about the side of "democracy promotion" efforts not typically highlighted in foreign affairs reporting by US corporate media, The Myths of ‘Democracy Assistance’: U.S. Political Intervention in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe Monthly Review 58:7 (Dec 2006)

U.S. interventionism, except perhaps in the Second World War, has shown little respect for democratic principles, yet its foreign policy rhetoric, a backhanded tribute to the sensibilities of ordinary people, is always cast in that light. Whereas the U.S. has relied extensively on providing aid to dictatorial regimes throughout the world (a policy it has yet to abandon), in a communication-intensive world environment, it is now considered more politically legitimate to accomplish its neoliberal ends through the discursive framing of “democracy assistance.” With respect to historic Anglo-American designs on Russia and eastern Europe, nothing much has changed since British foreign secretary Lord Balfour declared in 1918 (the year of the British-French-U.S. military intervention in Russia): “The only thing which interests me in the Caucasus is the railway line which delivers oil from Baku to Batumi. The natives can cut each other to pieces for all I care.”

Beyond the broad geopolitical strategy of controlling the oil reserves that beckon foreign intervention in the states configuring the region of the Caspian Sea to central Asia and asserting permanent military dominion over the area, there is the allure of new frontiers for transnational capitalist penetration. The need for political legitimacy and domination embodied in the benign expression “democracy assistance” is shared by a range of transnational corporate and state interests and their local compradores, which rely on public relations propagandists and electioneering mercenaries in hopes of establishing footholds in the region. Rick Ridder, a political consultant and former president of the International Association of Political Consultants, said in reference to the consulting gold rush in Mexico in preparation for the 2000 elections in that country: “If there’s one thing Americans can teach Mexicans it is this: Democracy is a booming business.” [my emphasis]
Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman wrote about this over a week ago, Did the GOP Strip & Flip the 2016 Selection? 11/18/2016. And they did a more recent one, Why the U.S. State Department would not certify Trump’s election as legitimate 11/20/2016.

And how is our Democratic President approaching this problem for the 2016 election results? As President Bipartisanship, of course! Bryan Logan, Obama administration throws cold water on vote recount effort Business Insider 11/25/2016; David Sanger, U.S. Officials Defend Integrity of Vote, Despite Hacking Fears New York Times 11/25/2016. From Sanger's report:

In its statement, the administration said, “The Kremlin probably expected that publicity surrounding the disclosures that followed the Russian government-directed compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations, would raise questions about the integrity of the election process that could have undermined the legitimacy of the president-elect.”

That was a reference to the breach of the Democratic National Committee’s email system, and the leak of emails from figures like John D. Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

“Nevertheless, we stand behind our election results, which accurately reflect the will of the American people,” it added.

Supporters of Mrs. Clinton have enthusiastically backed the notion of challenging the results in the three states as a last-ditch effort to reverse Mr. Trump’s clear majority in the Electoral College. They have seized on suggestions by some computer scientists that the states, which were crucial to Mr. Trump’s victory, need to manually review paper ballots to ensure the election was not hacked. [my emphasis]
That's some technically admirable diplomatic hedging. "Compromises" could mean hacking. Or maybe not.

How many sides of his own coalition does Obama shaft in that statement? Those who worry about careless accusations about Russian subversion? Check. Clinton supporters both reluctant and hardcore who want to see recounts? Check. Advocates for greater integrity in the voting machine processes, transparency and accountability? Check.

The incoming Trump Family Business Administration? Uh, no. I'm sure they're happy to have the lame-duck Democratic President side with them on this one.

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