JP Observer: More details, examples of Russian meddling needed

We can be sure the Russians tampered with the presidential election in 2016. Our intelligence agencies and almost everyone in Congress, no matter their party, agree that Russia intervened and say they have evidence to back them up.

On Jan. 6 this year, the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency (NSA) released a special, declassified version of a report called “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.” That report says in plain English that the agencies are sure the Russian government conducted a multi-pronged campaign in 2016 to try to “undermine the US election” in general and specifically harm Hillary Clinton and promote Donald Trump.

It is illegal for foreign governments to try to influence American elections. Proving that such efforts actually caused a single person to change their vote is not necessary for it to be a crime. That’s all clear.

Unfortunately, the situation remains fuzzy and much less official as long as we have to rely on random leaked reports to learn specifically what the Russians allegedly did. The details and most examples have not been shared with the public yet, and that’s causing problems.

The American people remain in official limbo while Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller and his staff oversee what are really two investigations: 1) into what the Russians did and 2) into what, if anything, the Trump campaign and his supporters did to cooperate.

We should be able to learn from investigators in detail within the next six months what the Russians allegedly did, at least. Examples and facts about the extent can and should be shared publicly without jeopardizing national security or sources.

When accusations are not presented by a responsible named entity, erroneous information can easily get spread, and it has already happened.

This incorrect statement appeared in a mass email sent to supporters earlier this month by a progressive membership nonprofit formed after Trump was elected: “We already know that Russia tried to hack voting machines in 39 states, and we’re confident that Mueller’s investigation will uncover more facts about this unprecedented attack on our democracy.”

It just isn’t so, though many people in social media and on various websites have repeated that voting machines were hacked or attempted to be hacked by the Russians in the presidential election.

Unfortunately, caring people who hear it get distracted. They think shielding our voting machines from interference is the first action we need to take. Given the import of what the Russians actually did and could do, protecting voting machines should be low on our list of concerns.

Most important to know is that it is impossible to remotely hack most voting machines in this country. Professional hackers and their crooked customers know that. Voting machines only contain simple processors, and they are not hooked to the internet.      You can’t get into the City of Boston machines from afar, for sure. And there are paper ballots as backup.

The Russians did not attempt to hack voting machines in the US presidential election in 2016.

The Intercept, founded in 2013, and others reported in June that the publication obtained a highly classified report from the National Security Agency that describes what the Russians really attempted to do with computer technology related to the election.

The NSA report, according to The Intercept, says that Russian military intelligence conducted a cyber attack against a voting software supplier and attempted to use it to penetrate voter registration data at local government organizations by sending them emails with harmful attachments.

The intelligence assessment from last January clearly states, “the types of [election] systems we observed Russian actors targeting are not involved in vote tallying.” The May NSA report says it was unknown if the convoluted efforts had any effects of any kind on any election.

Various anonymous sources have at various times told various media outlets that these attempts were made against local election officials in 8, 21 or 39 states, according to Slate. Leaks can be good for a while, but we don’t want to have to try to rely on them for complete, accurate information for long.

The Russians were more effective at hacking into private emails, we do know. We heard a lot about that because the contents of those emails made the news during the campaign, though we didn’t know US intelligence would say the Russians were responsible for that after the election.

The “Assessing Russian Activities” report says that Russian intelligence “gained access to Democratic Committee networks” and their “operations resulted in the compromise of email accounts.” The report goes on to say that the intelligence agencies are highly confident that Russian intelligence used three entities, Guccifer 2.0, and Wikileaks, to release the contents.

Some examples of the most insidious and frightening, though least discussed, interference by the Russians—an election season propaganda deluge—exploded into the news earlier this month.

The New York Times found and reported on Sept. 13 what it called “an example of fake social media accounts that were used to attack Hillary Clinton, promote leaked emails obtained by Russian hackers and propagate the Kremlin’s political views.”

Facebook executives revealed to Congress, the Special Counsel’s Office and media outlets that thousands of ads were placed by phony entities that recently turned out to be connected to a Russian firm. The ads were about hot-button issues in this country and targeted specific geographic areas, though where was not divulged yet.

In addition, Facebook discovered many fake Facebook accounts connected to Russian actors.

The “Assessing Russian Activities” report describes various “Russian Propaganda Efforts” during the election, saying Russia often used its media outlets RT and Sputnik “and a network of quasi-government trolls” that “made increasingly favorable comments” about Trump and gave “consistently negative coverage” of Clinton.

It cites an expert who said some social media accounts that appeared, on investigation, to be tied to the Russian government, started to advocate for Trump “as early as December 2015.”

New York Times media columnist and magazine writer at large Jim Rutenberg in a Sept. 18 opinion piece chastised Facebook for not being more forthcoming so the American public could be better educated about Russia’s secret tactics for swaying American opinion.

Rutenberg’s concept is right, but his criticism is misdirected. We need to encourage the government to release more examples of the Russians’ propaganda efforts as soon as possible. It’s government, not private industry, that should give us the total, accurate picture of what Facebook and other media outlets as well as those of us in the audience may have fallen for. We don’t want it to happen again.

Already, it seems everyone who provides and consumes news and opinion, especially from the free range of social media and the wild world of the web, needs to take a course in critical thinking. We all need to research sources, look at motives of purveyors of information and be aware of our own belief soft spots.

Federal government investigators need to unearth and openly make public lots of specific examples of what the Russians did in the media realm to try to influence our opinions and our votes. That way we can better recognize it when and if we come upon it again.

Rutenberg ended his column with the same words I planned to use to encourage speedy disclosures from media and government: “After all, the 2018 midterms are just around the corner.”

Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.

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