Sunday, February 18, 2018

Russia's effect on the 2016 election, or is it on the "American mind," or what?

Wired posted a story about the effect of the Russian intervention on the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, Did Russia Affect The 2016 Election? It's Now Undeniable 02/16/2018.

And the story fits with the headline. Referring to the Special Counsel's indictments announced Friday, it says, "this information makes it increasingly difficult to say that the Kremlin's effort to impact the American mind did not succeed."

The author is Molly McKew. Her author information at the bottom of the piece identifies her as "an expert on information warfare and the narrative architect at New Media Frontier. She advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government from 2009 to 2013 and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014-15."

Wait. If she's an American citizen, she presumably had to register as a foreign agent to perform those advisory tasks. And aren't those countries over around Russia somewhere? Aren't we supposed to be suspicious of foreign agents talking about American politics? And doesn't that go for countries like Georgia and Moldovo that Americans can't find on the map? Or is it only Russia?

That's not just gratuitous snark, given the how she makes her argument. (Full disclosure: I'm married to an Austrian citizen.) McKew seems to think that Russia's 2016 mischief was ferociously effective in swaying American opinions. Of course there's nothing inherently sinister in itself about someone doing a legal consulting gig for a foreign government. Disclosure like the ones quoted above is important, because they can indicate a possible personal financial stake in taking certain positions. Which doesn't in itself imply corruption or bad faith. In this case, Mikheil Saakashvili was President of Ukraine during the Russo-Ukraine war of 2008. The Bush Administration and the following Obama Administration was sympathetic to Georgia in the conflict with Russia. But readers may be excused for assuming that if Saakashvilli was hiring an "information warfare" specialist in 2009, he wouldn't have looked for someone inclined to take a detached, scholarly position on Russia in international relations.

Vlad Filat was arrested in 2015 in connection with "the disappearance of $1bn (£646m) from three Moldovan banks. ... The missing money is equivalent to an eighth of the ex-Soviet republic's entire GDP. Moldova is one of Europe's poorest countries." (Moldova ex-PM Vlad Filat held over $1bn bank scam BBC News 11/19/2015)

It's worth noting here that the wording in the information warfare specialist's is careful throughout in strongly hinting that Russia's intervention in the 2016 election determined the result without making the explicit claim. Note in the first quote above, she argues that Russia made an effort "to impact the American mind."

The tweet at the top of McKew's Twitter page at this writing is this one:

Jeet Heer in The New Republic commented on the article of hers she links in that post (A “New Cold War” Against Russia Is a Terrible Idea 01/04/2017):
Molly K. McKew, who has been an advisor to the government of Georgian President Saakashvili and to former Moldovan Prime Minister Filat, argues in Politico Magazine that Russia is already at war with the U.S. According to McKew, Russia sees the U.S. as “the main enemy” and is working to undermine the American-dominated global order. Thus, McKew hopes Trump will come to his senses and treat Russia as the nation’s primary threat. In other words, McKew is calling for a return to the bipolar view of global politics that held sway during the height of the Cold War in the 1950s, when Americans thought every issue was a question of the free world versus “godless communism.” McKew is admirably forthright in stating her desire ...
Tweeting about Russia's "global imperialist insurgency" does sound like something straight out of 1955.

The argument McKew tries to make in the Wired article has the same problem that arguments to date about Russia having affected the election results share. Which is that while Russian interference that violate American laws is something to be taken very seriously, democratic elections involve so many factors that determining exactly what factors were decisive is difficult to say with precision. And given that the election result depended on pretty tiny margins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, describing very precise effects i those three states would be necessary to make the argument. As McKew herself says near the end:
Persuasion and influence via social media cannot be estimated in linear terms; it requires looking at network effects. It is about the impact of a complex media environment with many layers, inputs, voices, amplifiers, and personalities. All of these elements change over time and interact with each other.

So anyone trying to tell you there was little impact on political views from the tools the Russians used doesn't know. Because none of us knows. No one has looked. Social media companies don't want us to know, and they obfuscate and drag their feet rather than disclosing information. The analytical tools to quantify the impact don’t readily exist. But we know what we see, and what we heard—and the narratives pushed by the Russian information operation made it to all of our ears and eyes. [my emphasis]
In this clip, Hillary Clinton loyalist Neera Tanden says that "we just don't know" if the Russian actions decisively affected the election outcome, though she clearly wants to imply very strongly that it did, Tanden: New Indictment Undercuts Legitimacy Of Trump's Election The Beat With Ari Melber/MSNBC:

Part of the reason that the Russia-Russia-Russia thread has been so central to Democratic criticism of Trump is that the Clinton campaign immediately after the election adopted it as an excuse. Ari Melmer starting around 1:00 in that clip asks her if she thinks the information in the public sphere so far affects "the legitimacy of Donald Trump as President." This is a different question than whether it decided the election or makes his election illegitimate. She responds, "It's hard to say, in my view, that didn't affect 70,000 votes" [referring presumably to the narrow margins in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan] followed immediately by "we just don't know." I don't want to split the hairs too finely here. But that's what I meant by Tanden implying that the Russian actions decided the election without actually saying so. In fact, she immediately follows with, "And, in my view, that does call into question the legitimacy of this election."

She's saying something like, prove to me that they didn't, despite saying explicitly that "we just don't know" whether they did or not.

There is clearly a lot more to come to public light, and some of it might provide evidence that suggests more strongly than what we have now that Russian intervention affected the outcome of the election.

Undoubtedly, the Clinton campaign and establishment Democrats generally would like to be able that it was Russian tricks that decided the election rather than any defects in Electable Hillary's own campaign. Establishment Dems have gotten very good at making excuses to continue using approaches that lose.

But the facts of illegal Russian interference are important and need to be fully clarified. And that doesn't depend at all on whether it can be shown to have affected the outcome of the election. It may still very well turn out to be business dealings with Russian entities that are the most important source of criminality and vulnerability of the Trumps to Russian government pressures. And problems in Trump's business dealings, including while he has been President, won't necessarily be restricted to Russian entities.

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