CYBERWARFARE: RUSSIA’S ATTACK ON THE 2016 ELECTION

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

This is my sixth post on computer hacking and cyberwarfare and part of my overview of New York Times cybersecurity reporter Nicole Perlroth’s outstanding book, This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. [1] My first post summarized the book’s information on the scale of computer hacking, cybercrime, and cyberwarfare; the 2017 North Korean ransomware attack; and the 2009 U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) cyberwarfare attack on Iran. My second post covered the leaks from the NSA, electronic surveillance in the U.S., and the use of encryption to protect privacy. My third post described Russia’s cyberattacks on Ukraine. The fourth and fifth posts described China’s cyberattack on Google and Google’s response.

This post summarizes Russia’s attack on the 2016 U.S. election which began in June 2014 when Russia sent two agents to the U.S. for a three-week reconnaissance tour to gather intelligence on U.S. politics and elections. Their report became the field guide for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Starting in 2014, the Russians tried to hack into voter registration and election systems in all 50 states. They are known to have succeed in accessing Arizona’s and Illinois’s voter databases. In 2015 (and probably before then), the Russians aggressively hacked into computer networks at the State Department, White House, and Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Defense Department, although this was probably unrelated to the election and was just “routine” espionage. Occurring in the midst of the unprecedented and mind-boggling presidential campaign that was ongoing at the time, these cyberattacks got little coverage in the mainstream media.

Russia’s social media propaganda agency, known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), had as its goal for the U.S. election in 2016 to “spread distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general. … [to create] division, distrust, and mayhem.” [2] In September 2014, the IRA created a Facebook group, Heart of Texas, focused on right-wing Texans that generated 5.5 million likes within a year. It also created another Facebook group, United Muslims of America. Then, among other things, it used these two Facebook groups to promote rallies and counter-rallies at the Islamic Center in Houston that led to real-world confrontations. The IRA used the stolen identities of Americans to make their work more credible, but nonetheless its cyber manipulators were surprised at how gullible and susceptible the Americans were to their Facebook disinformation.

Based on its success in Texas, the IRA began replicating this approach across the country, focusing on purple states. Its staffing grew to more than 80 people who were directed to “Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them)” according to leaked memos. [3] The IRA:

  • Communicated with Trump campaign volunteers.
  • Bought Facebook ads promoting Trump and attacking Clinton.
  • Promoted race-baiting and xenophobic messages.
  • Worked to suppress minority voter turnout and to encourage voting for third party candidates instead of for Clinton.
  • Paid an unwitting Florida Trump supporter to put a cage on a flatbed truck and paid an actress to dress up as Clinton and sit in the cage as Trump rally goers chanted “Lock her up!” Based on this success, they promoted similar rallies in other states.
  • Reached 126 million Facebook users and generated 288 million Twitter actions, which are staggering numbers given that 139 million people voted in the 2016 election.

In June 2016, it was discovered that two other Russian groups had hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s computer network months earlier, extracting and releasing embarrassing emails, among other things.

The Obama Administration, facing multi-faceted and snowballing Russian interference in the election, finally decided in the fall of 2016 that a strong bipartisan statement (so it wouldn’t appear political) was necessary. Top Homeland Security and FBI officials were sent to brief Congress. But the response from the Republicans was completely partisan. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to warn Americans about Russia’s efforts to influence and undermine the 2016 elections. He refused to sign any bipartisan statement, argued (falsely) that the intelligence on the cyberattacks was wrong, and claimed (falsely) that this was all just Democratic partisan politics.

After the election, the Obama Administration imposed significant sanctions on the Russians, but they were too little and too late. Although there’s some argument over the ultimate impact of the Russian’s efforts, Perlroth concludes that the Russian actions may well have tipped the election to Trump. Black voter turnout declined sharply in 2016 for the first time in 20 years, which was a constituency and an outcome that the Russians had aggressively targeted. Black voter turnout fell from 66.6% in 2012 to 59.6% in 2016, its lowest level since 2000. This represented a decline of 765,000 votes when less than 80,000 votes in three key states determined the outcome of the election. Furthermore, Trump’s margin in each of these three key states – Wisconsin (22,800 votes, a 0.8% margin), Pennsylvania (44,300 votes, a 0.7% margin), and Michigan (10,700 votes, a 0.2% margin) – was less in each state than the vote for the Green Party candidate. This voting for third party candidates instead of Clinton was another outcome that the Russians had aggressively targeted. Given the closeness of the election, a relatively small change in either (let alone both) of Black voter turnout or the number of votes for the Green Party instead of for Clinton would have changed the outcome of the election – and both of these were factors that the Russians specifically worked to influence.

Subsequent posts will outline the Perlroth book’s reporting on:

  • Russia’s continuing cyberattacks on the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections and the Trump administration’s response, and
  • What can be done to counter cybercrime and warfare at the individual and governmental levels.

[1]      Perlroth, N. This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. Bloomsbury Publishing, NY, NY. 2021.

[2]      Perlroth, N., see above, page 310

[3]      Perlroth, N., see above, page 311

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