Those of you watched Attorney General William Barr’s “press conference” on Thursday morning without actually reading through the 448-page Robert Mueller report may have been led to believe that President Donald Trump did no wrong and was exonerated by the findings of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian tampering in our political processes.
But anyone reading the report with an open mind would find countless troubling findings that show that Trump may not have been literally in cahoots with Russians looking to affect the outcome in 2016, but that his efforts to win the White House clearly benefited from a Russian propaganda machine that relied on Americans’ reliance on social media for news and on Americans’ laziness when it comes to exploring the sources of political information and the motivations of those sources.
You can read the redacted version of Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election here: https://www.justice.gov/storage/report.pdf
Bottom line: We were duped by hackers and phishers – and a very sophisticated and far-reaching technology machine – organizations and individuals who manipulated messaging channels to impact the outcome of the 2016 elections.
Trump backers may feel emboldened that their hackers were better and more effective than whoever was working on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but this situation should scare all of us away from social media posts and back to traditional – and local – news media outlets, whose leaders and reporters are identifiable and whom you can contact directly.
Leave Facebook and Instagram for pictures of your dogs and cats, kids and landscapes – not sources of information that might influence your choices at the ballot box.
Mueller found that the Russians and the Trump campaign had a relationship of mutual benefit, but investigators could not prove that actual “conspiracy” occurred. Mueller stated: “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
The Mueller report repeatedly points to the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA), which it says “carried out the earliest Russian interference operations identified by the investigation – a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States.”
And the duping was not limited to white, rural America – considered Trump’s “base.” False messaging reached both blacks and whites; reached Christians, Jews and Muslims; reached the wealthy and the impoverished; reached all sides of the debates on race, jobs and entitlements.
All with false messages – truly “fake news” – designed to affect how people feel, interact and ultimately vote.
Despite extensive redactions, the Mueller report is both enlightening and terrifying.
The document tracks a chilling IRA-led effort that reached “millions of U.S. persons through their social media accounts. Multiple IRA-controlled Facebook groups and Instagram accounts had hundreds of thousands of U.S. participants. IRA-controlled Twitter accounts separately had tens of thousands of followers, including multiple U.S. political figures who retweeted IRA-created content.”
Mueller’s investigative team uncovered a plot that dominated social media channels through fake accounts, purchased advertising urging hashtag-driven political messaging, sent IRA employees to the United States on “intelligence-gathering missions.”
The IRA had representatives pose “as anti-immigration groups, Tea Party activists, Black Lives Matter protesters, and other U.S. social and political activists” – and even “organized and promoted political rallies inside the United States while posing as U.S. grassroots activists.”
The report says that “collectively, the IRA’s social media accounts reached tens of millions of U.S. persons. ... For example, at the time they were deactivated by Facebook in mid-2017, the IRA’s ‘United Muslims of America’ Facebook group had over 300,000 followers, the ‘Don’t Shoot Us’ Facebook group had over 250,000 followers, the ‘Being Patriotic’ Facebook group had over 200,000 followers, and the ‘Secured Borders’ Facebook group had over 130,000 followers.”
The Russians also, Mueller reported, hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s databases, planted malware that allowed them to steal emails and other files, and then leaked information.
Some of those files were shared with Wikileaks – yes, that’s the organization founded by Julian Assange, recently arrested – “in order to expand its interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” Mueller wrote.
This process amounted to a nationwide extension of the scams that frequently separate innocent and unwitting individuals from their money.
Only this time, what was lost was our shared national belief in a political system of and for the people.
You could react to reading this report by feeling powerless – disengaging from your social media accounts, throwing away your cell phone and living out your days in a cave.
That would be understandable.
But, you might instead move forward as a smarter modern consumer, with your innocence smashed but your cultural and political defenses reinforced – regardless of your political leanings.
This isn’t about whether people chose to vote for Donald Trump.
It’s about why they did.
And about what happens next.