The indictment on Friday by Robert Mueller of thirteen Russians for interference operations marks a dramatic escalation in the U.S. government’s willingness to detail and respond to the steady barrage of digital attacks against the United States.
Importantly, the indictment is not focused on asserting any kind of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Instead, the indictment is a tactical maneuver not only to publicly attribute Russian interference activity but also to prepare the American population for these same kinds of tactics in upcoming elections and help preserve our electoral integrity.
The indictment is remarkable for at least four major reasons:
- First, an indictment for electoral interference has been anticipated for months, but most assumed it would focus on the DNC data breach and dump. The recent indictment makes no mention whatsoever of the DNC breach. Instead, it focuses on Russia’s Internet Research Agency and its vast range of social media manipulation, bank and wire fraud, and identity theft.
- Second, the level of detail in the indictment is just stunning. It clearly signals the depth of access gained in conducting the investigation and a willingness to make that accessibility public knowledge.
- Third, the manipulation of the various social media platforms exceeds that which has so far been acknowledged. It will be exceedingly difficult for social media platforms to feign ignorance or turn a blind eye to the social and political impact of their platforms.
- Finally, Russia’s integration of old and new influence methods illustrates the resources and willingness of the Russian government to interfere by any means possible. The indictment specifies the human and technological presence in the United States with on-the-ground spies who organized protests and conducted political reconnaissance and U.S.-based servers with VPNs accessed from Russia to obfuscate identities. This is in addition to the highly-organized team of potentially hundreds of trolls in Russia who purchased ads, joined or started online groups and crafted fake personas all as part of the interference operation.
Of course, given that the thirteen people indicted are likely located in Russia, there is a low probability of arrest. Nevertheless, indictments for various forms of digital attacks have at times led to arrests, especially when the defendant travels abroad.
The indictment also establishes a global precedent and takes a step toward shaping global norms around what digital activity is and is not off limits. In addition, even if the thirteen defendants are never arrested, the indictment is an essential step in educating the American public about the degree of foreign interference and the various ways social media platforms can be manipulated. In some ways, the indictment is not so much about 2016, but rather should shed a spotlight on similar, ongoing interference operations. For instance, on the same day the indictment was announced, there was a spike in bots pushing forth various gun hashtags following the Parkland massacre. This is entirely consistent with the activity depicted in the indictment.
Technology continues to rapidly advance, and with that foreign interference by a range of actors is expanding into new platforms, and from written content into videos and images. The indictment should further empower the U.S. government to publicly attribute and respond to future foreign interference operations and preserve the electoral integrity which serves as a key foundation of our democracy. While the indictment ideally helps disrupt Russian interference activities, it also should be the first of many steps in preparing the American public for what to expect in the 2018 midterms and beyond.
Andrea Little Limbago is chief social scientist at Endgame, a cybersecurity software company. She previously taught in academia before joining the Joint Warfare Analysis Center as a computational social scientist. While at JWAC, she earned the command’s top award for technical excellence for her analytic support across the Department of Defense. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Colorado at Boulder.