Last Friday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an unclassified version of the report on “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections“. I recommend that you read it yourself, as I have just done. The pdf is 25 pages, but the body of the report itself is only 5 pages (not including the appendix), plus a 2-page introduction that should not be skipped that explains the context and how to understand the terminology and assessments presented in an intelligence briefing. It includes “analytic assessment drafted and coordinated among The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and The National Security Agency (NSA)”, though this declassified version does not include all of the supporting evidence from the three agencies that are in the classified version.
Things We Now Know:
The report assesses that there was an intentional campaign waged by Russia to “influence” our election, by means of cyber hacks, strategically leaked documents, propaganda, and trolls, but that Russia did not hack or compromise our voting tally systems. This means we must face some hard truths about ourselves as a country–Russia did not plant divisions among us, but merely expertly exploited our existing prejudices, our deeply bitter partisanship, our social media echo-chambers and targeted-ad structures, and the predictably rabid cycles of our media narratives. We made ourselves vulnerable to this kind of malicious attack on our national sovereignty, and until we address this we will continue to be vulnerable to this kind of outside influence in future elections.
Since voting machines and tally systems were not hacked, however, it means Trump’s electoral college victory is legitimate, but it is not strong. He won 304 of 538 electoral votes, a 56.5% margin of victory that ranks as 46th out of the 58 presidential elections in our nations history thus far. It is a bigger margin than either of George W. Bush’s wins, but less than George H.W. Bush’s win, both of Obama’s, and both of Bill Clinton’s. It’s important to note the historical context of Trump’s electoral win, because the actual numbers do not support either the narrative of some on the right that this was a “landslide” nor that narrative of some on the left that it was so close, a few well-placed Russian ballots could have swayed the results. This was what America chose, under the electoral system that we have, in 2016.
Another important piece of context are the voting tallies which have now been certified: though 62,979,636 (46.1%) Americans voted for Trump, 65,844,610 (48.2%) voted for Hillary Clinton, 7,804,213 (5.7%) voted for someone other than the leading two candidates, and 92,671,979 voting-eligible Americans (43%) did not vote at all. This means that only 27.4% of the American voting-eligible public voted for Trump; it does not undermine the legitimacy of his win, since our system is not based on popular vote, and is not necessarily much different than the percentage of overall eligible voters that chose previous presidents, but again, it is important context to keep in mind.
Things We Don’t Know Yet, But May Later Find Out:
Did any part of Trump’s campaign knowingly collude and coordinate with the tactics of the Russian influence campaign? If so, to what extent?
Why was the American public made aware of the Intelligence Community’s assessment of the intentional Russian influence campaign at this time, but not before or during the campaign?
Presuming that the government knew about Russia’s attempts to influence our election while it was happening, how did if at all did they respond at the time?
The report states that “Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign”; what information did they gather on Republicans, and are they using it currently to blackmail certain politicians, or will they leak more of those documents at a later time, when it suits whatever their current purpose is?
How does (or how should) knowing that hacked, leaked information was purposefully deployed to influence our election inform our attitude and our media’s responsibilities when it comes to reporting on this information? How can we stay informed without allowing our news sources to be weaponized against us?
Things We Don’t Know and May Never Know:
How much were voters’ choices influenced by the Russian campaign, specifically the hacked, leaked documents? The DNI report states, “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.” It would likely be impossible to measure anyway, just as we will likely never know to what extent we were all culpable–the media, in its lopsided, leak-driven coverage of the candidates, our self-imposed social media and real-life bubbles, the ninety million of us that for whatever reason did not even participate in our democratic process this cycle. What would it look like to resist this type of foreign influence campaign?