Jan 8, 2021 - Technology

Disinformation's big win

Illustration of a hand holding marionette strings with the wooden handle made from a hashtag. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The road to yesterday's ransacking of the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob began four years ago with the Russian theft of Democratic party emails.

Why it matters: Russia aims to undermine U.S. democracy, and this week's turmoil is another sign of its success.

The big picture: Disinformation campaigns work in the short term to target enemies and in the long term to undermine the stability of social systems.

Be smart: The people who invaded Congress Wednesday to stop the certification of a U.S. presidential election weren't paid by the Kremlin or acting under orders from Putin. But their actions — like those of the president who stoked their rage with lies — couldn't have been more aligned with Russia's goals when it attacked the U.S. political system in 2016.

  • The short-term goal was to help elect Trump, whom the Kremlin accurately viewed as a force for chaos and disruption in Washington.
  • The long-term goal was to create lasting mistrust among Americans in their own elections.

Trump took the ball and ran with it. That left the U.S. with a population of tens of millions of people who now believe, without any evidence and against the rulings of dozens of state and federal courts, that Biden stole the White House from Trump.

  • On cue after Wednesday's events, Russian government and media outlets cheered on Trump's complaints against the American press and the U.S.'s "archaic" election system even while commiserating over the U.S.'s humiliation, per the Daily Beast.

Context: The U.S. failed to treat the 2016 attack as the declaration of cyber-war that it was.

  • Trump saw investigations into Russian disinformation as efforts to undermine the legitimacy of his win.

That left the U.S. vulnerable, and today we are paying the price:

  • With the SolarWinds hack, Russian cyber-saboteurs gained access to a still unknown number of U.S. government and corporate networks. They're still there.
  • But the Capitol invasion shows that Putin no longer needs to send his hackers to pilfer Nancy Pelosi's email. Rioters waving Trump flags are now willing to do that work.

Between the lines: The work of undermining trust in the American system that began with clandestine cyber operations is now undertaken out in the open on social media platforms and right-wing media outlets.

What's next: Restoring trust takes longer than demolishing it.

  • Documenting Russia's past mischief and completing long-stymied investigations into Trump's entanglements with Moscow will be an important part of shoring up Americans' faith in their system.
  • But so will finding new ways to disassemble the alternate-reality information systems that inspire events like the Capitol siege.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with information about reactions from Russia.

Go deeper