Vox | Russia’s strategy is even more dangerous that it appears. Not only does it undermine democracy using the press but it actually gets the press to undermineitself. And there’s not much we can reasonably do about it, either.
Every cybersecurity researcher I spoke to warned that the next step in Russia’s strategy is forgeries: that the Russians will give WikiLeaks a lot of hacked information and include in it some fake emails with seemingly damning information. Because this is private correspondence, it’s very difficult for reporters to identify as being false. The people who are hacked can deny it, but WikiLeaks will insist it’s genuine, creating a kind of “he said, she said” situation where you can’treallyknow who’s telling the truth.
There’s no evidence Russia has done this in any of the election dumps — yet. But it has before:Foreign Policy’s Elias Groll has a good write-up of how documents stolen from philanthropist George Soros’s foundation included one note showing Soros’s group shoveling hundreds of thousands of dollars to Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. The email was a fake, one designed to discredit Navalny by making him look like a foreign plant.
The Soros email was a poor forgery and was easily caught. But there’s no guarantee the Kremlin remains this incompetent in the future.
That’s what’s so scary for the press. If future docu-dumps contain potentially falsified information, which can’t well be verified, we end up in a post-truth world where it’s impossible to trust information online. The press may end up unintentionally propagating false information, even if it reports denials by the targets alongside the fake revelations. That undermines its role as societal truth teller and thus the public’s already damaged faith in the press’s honesty.
“Hacking and misinformation are the death knell,” Isabel, the journalism professor, says. “If we’re just constantly following and repeating information we get, then our credibility goes even lower.”
The worst part, though, is that there’s almost no way for the press to stop this. Reporters, for reasons we’ve discussed, have every reason to report on hacked disclosures. We can’t hold back on newsworthy information because of the hypothetical fear that one day Russia will end up spinning us into undermining ourselves.
There are checks the press can put up, of course: Be skeptical, don’t report things that seem mundane or too outlandish, verify with independent information whenever you can, and publish other pieces on Russia’s information warfare strategy. But it’s not at all clear that these tactics can counteract the damage hacking and misinformation can do to the credibility of both democracy and the press itself.