Another day, another hacking. At least, that’s what it seemed at first. In August, two election databases in Arizona and Illinois were hacked. Arizona responded by shutting down voter registration for nearly a week, and in Illinois, the breach resulted in the compromise of more than 200,000 voter records. Hackers breaching databases has become so commonplace that the loss of personal information barely raises an eyebrow for most Americans. This hack, like so many others, received little attention at first. … To understand Russia’s recent attacks on American democracy, one simply needs to look back to the country’s Cold War tactics. Outpaced by American military spending and military innovation—and challenged by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—the Soviet Union sought an alternative approach to counter the U.S. Rather than match America on the battlefield, the U.S.S.R. sought to erode the U.S. from the inside out—using the “force of politics” rather than the “politics of force” to break democracy, fracturing the unity of the American populace and degrading trust in U.S. institutions. In a program known as “Active Measures,” the Soviet Union would deploy agents and provocateurs to spread propaganda amongst American dissident groups and communist causes throughout the Western world.
Cold War efforts to use propaganda to shatter the U.S. democratic system largely failed, but the internet and particularly social media have provided Russia’s “Active Measures” a renewed opportunity to foment American dissent. In contrast to the Soviet era, social media and the wealth of information available through the internet provides Russia the ability to access and disrupt American political figures and democratic institutions without setting foot in the U.S. Plus, the costs associated with hacking and social media manipulation are far lower for Russia—both in terms of money and risk—than deploying actual humans to influence U.S. elections.
The goal is simple: break American confidence in democracy by either directly disrupting the democratic process or eroding its integrity. By sowing doubt among voters and raising questions about the authenticity of a candidate’s appointment, Russia can create internal American dissent that distracts U.S. policymakers, permitting Russia to move more aggressively towards its foreign policy goals.