In conservative circles there is no agreement on the importance of investigations into the ongoing Russian influence campaigns in the United States that first came to light in 2016. Some argue the issue is old, or fake, and we should move on. Others say we must investigate and expose everything.
After playing a small role in the 2016 presidential campaign, and examining the facts in light of my own experiences, my answer is clear: We must fully understand every knowable action taken in connection with Russia’s influence campaign and make certain every American knows what took place.
This is central: American elections are not insignificant events. Whom the American people choose, and the national dialogue that drives those choices, have profound implications both at home and abroad. There is no greater expression of sovereignty than a republic’s citizens choosing its leaders.
Sovereignty is traditionally an issue of key importance to conservatives, who, myself included, buck at treaties, agreements, conferences and deals that may infringe upon the right of our nation to choose its own course. A direct attack by a foreign government on the process of choosing our leaders is no less a violation of our sovereignty.
It is also unprecedented. While stealing secrets, leaking them and attempting to influence public opinion are not new tactics, especially for the Russians who used them daily during the Cold War, the reach and magnitude of the Russian influence campaign exposed in 2016 is unmatched. What has changed is the government of Vladimir Putin’s weaponization of social media on a mass scale.
To be clear: trolls, working under the direction of the Russian government and its allies, impersonated Americans on social media and used paid advertising to reach millions of real Americans, Many American voters, without realizing it, spread the messages cooked up by the Russians. This duplicity, and direct involvement of the American people, itself demands investigation.
The entire world is watching how America responds to this attack on our sovereignty. Failure to aggressively investigate, expose and defend ourselves against foreign influence campaigns would be an open invitation not only to the Russians, but to every other hostile power, to join in. America must send the opposite message: We will get to the bottom of this and hold accountable those responsible.
Russia’s multifaceted campaign included hacking computer networks and email systems, careful curation of stolen data, leaking of such information to inflict damage, and influencing campaigns designed to amplify domestic social tensions. Like other prototypes, there were flaws: broken English, the use of traceable IP addresses and hacking tools and overreliance on a small number of troll farms.
We must assume the Russians won’t make the same mistakes twice. They will learn better English. They will diversify their cyber-espionage tools. They will learn to better cover their tracks. We need to not only understand what they have done but how they are likely to evolve in both strategy and tactics.
The investigations so far have taught us a great deal. Through them we have learned the Russian online influence campaign identified existing divisions in our society and worked aggressively to amplify them as a means of turning us against each other. The Russians are not on the side of the left or the right — they’re on the side of war.
Consider this: How many paid Facebook ads did the Russian “Internet Research Agency” buy promoting messages related to taxes, regulation, trade, education or the environment? It appears the answer is zero. Instead they chose issues almost exclusively in the areas of race, ethnicity and religion — all topics with much greater emotional potential.
On May 21, 2016 Russian trolls working through the Internet Research Agency troll farm in St. Petersburg organized both pro-Islam and anti-Islam protests in front of an Islamic Center in Houston. The competing protests were organized using separate Facebook pages, each boosted by paid advertising to targeted groups. It is an eye-opening example of the Russians deliberately playing both sides, feeding paranoia and ill will that leads to flaring tempers and sometimes violence.
In the nearly 30 years I have volunteered and worked in the conservative movement and the Republican Party I never once witnessed examples of racism or white nationalism. The thousands of conservative activists and volunteers I have met are patriots — good people united in the cause of liberty. Yet in 2015 and 2016, we saw an explosion in attention given to obscure white nationalists and organizations most of us have never heard of (I won’t mention them by name here, to avoid giving them more attention).
Are we to believe that it is pure coincidence that we hear from the alt-right and their counterparts on the extreme left in such a sustained way at the same time we know the Russian influence operation sought to amplify social tensions in America? This is not a coincidence, but rather cause and effect.
We now know, thanks to investigations by Congress, journalists, cybersecurity experts and non-profit organizations, that the handful of extremists looking for influence in American politics got help, not from Texas or Tennessee, but from St. Petersburg and Moscow.
We must get to the bottom of this, and every American must know what it is that the Russians are up to. Americans who fully understand the influence campaign that is under way will have the knowledge necessary to fight back. No matter how many trolls the Russians employ, the success of their efforts depends on manipulating real Americans to buy into and spread the divisive messaging being cooked up in St. Petersburg and Moscow.
In the meantime, we can reflect upon the reality that the Russians did not invent the divisions that exist in American society. They only sought to exploit them. Going forward, each time we emphasize what we as Americans have in common, we serve to both unify, and protect, our great country.
Ron Nehring served as spokesman for the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised The Senate confirmation process is broken — Senate Democrats can fix it Australian politician on Cruz, vaccines: 'We don't need your lectures, thanks mate' MORE (R-Texas) in 2016 and is a former chairman of the California Republican Party. Twitter: @RonNehring.