The United States and its allies are under attack. The cyberwar we’ve feared for a generation is well underway, and we are losing. This is the forest, and the stuff about Russian election meddling, contacts with the Donald Trump campaign, phony Twitter accounts, fake news on Facebook — those things are trees.
We’ve been worried about a massive frontal assault, a work of internet sabotage that would shut down commerce or choke off the power grid. And with good reason. The recent exploratory raid by Russian hackers on American nuclear facilities reminds us that such threats are real.
But America failed to prepare for an attack of great subtlety and strategic nuance. Enemies of the West have hacked its cultural advantages, turning the very things that have made it strong — technological leadership, free speech, the market economy and multi-party government — against it. The attack is ongoing.
With each passing week, we learn more. Russia and its sympathisers have cranked up the volume on existing political and cultural divisions in the West, like some psychic version of the Stuxnet hack that caused Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to spin so fast they tore themselves to pieces. They’ve exploited the cutting-edge algorithms of Facebook and Google to feed misinformation to Americans most likely to believe and spread it. They have targeted online ads designed to intensify the West’s hottest culture wars: Abortion, guns, sexuality, race. They have partnered with WikiLeaks, the supposed paragon of free speech, to insert propaganda into influential Twitter accounts — including @realDonaldTrump. They have created thousands of phony online identities to add heat to political fever swamps.
The genius of this cyberwar is that unwitting Westerners do most of the work. America and the West’s eagerness to believe the worst about their political opponents makes them easy marks for fake or distorted “news” from anti-American troll farms. American media — talk radio, cable news, every variety of digital communication — seek to cull us into like-minded echo chambers. The West has monetised polarisation; its enemies have, in turn, weaponised it.
What was first perceived as a targeted attack — Russia attempting to hack the United States presidential election — is proving to be a broader and bolder war. Britain’s head of cybersecurity Ciaran Martin rang the alarm, after a series of attacks on British media, telecommunications and energy-sector software. “Russia is seeking to undermine the international system,” Martin said. “That much is clear.” Those attacks and others led Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May to issue a blunt warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a speech in London. “We know what you are doing and you will not succeed,” May declared.
So far, she’s wrong about that. Seeking to weaken and discredit the western alliance that has constrained Russia’s global ambitions for 70 years, Putin pushed the Brexit vote that rattled the European Union (EU). His cyber-sappers have also aided nationalist movements in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Hungary that are shaking the alliance, although they have failed (for now) to win power.
And then there is US President Trump. He continues to insist that his campaign did not collude in Putin’s disruption of America. I guess it depends on the meaning of “collude”. Recent revelations indicate that Trump’s oldest son, Donald Jr — the one who declared “I love it” when a contact told him the Russians wanted to help his father — was in contact with Russian sympathiser and WikiLeaks impresario Julian Assange or a close Assange associate, concerning ways to promote emails stolen by Russian hackers from Diplomatic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. In one instance, a tweet suggested by the WikiLeaks connection promptly appeared under candidate Trump’s Twitter handle.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Campaign manager Paul Manafort. Adviser Michael Flynn and his son. Adviser George Papadopoulos. Gadfly Roger Stone. The Russians connected with so many figures in the Trump orbit that it would take more than 20 minutes to name them all, former ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, said slyly in an interview with Russia’s state-owned television. But he added that nothing covert was discussed.
Here’s the point, though: Russia did not need to collude with Trump. He was already an ideal host for the virus they were spreading. Putin’s goal, in May’s words, is to “sow discord in the West”, and Trump eats, sleeps and breathes discord. He understands that America’s siloed, targeted, algorithmic media feeds on conflict and outrage, and he is happy to dish it up.
What is America to do when an adversary has figured out how to use its strongest companies, its most-watched news programmes, even its president’s pugnacious personality against its national interest? Americans can’t defend themselves until they see clearly what is happening, and understand that fact-checking, truth-telling and goodwill are more than virtues now. They are patriotic duties. Pogo’s words were never so true: We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.
— Washington Post
David Von Drehle writes a twice-weekly column for the Post. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine, and is the author of four books, including Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year and Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.