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Did the involvement of Russian trolls and hackers swing the 2016 presidential election? Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of “Cyberwar,” believes it is “highly probable” that they did. She joins Judy Woodruff to discuss her research on how the Russians found the right messages and delivered them to key audiences using social media--as well as how we can manage foreign election meddling in the future.
As we prepare for elections next week, we want to step back and take a close look at what Russian officials did to try to sway the vote in 2016.
That's the focus of a new book, "Cyberwar," by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a noted scholar of American politics.
We began with a key question: Did Russia turn the outcome of the last presidential race?
Kathleen Hall Jamieson:
I believe it's highly probable that they did, not certain, but highly probable.
And what do you base it on?
First, the social media intervention, which is the Russian trolls marauding around in cyberspace, pretending they're U.S. citizens, had a message aligned with candidate Trump's. They had identified the right voters they needed to mobilize, demobilize and shift in order to help elect him.
They had messages that had a lot of viral exposure, so they reached a lot of people. But we're not completely sure, although they did have the entire Democratic playbook, and so they had the means, whether they actually reached the right voters in the three key states. The case is tentative.
You make a point of saying that they zeroed in on the vulnerabilities in our system, the voters who could make a difference.
For example, you write about the voters who could be persuaded to go with Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, African-American voters. You are giving the Russians a lot of credit, aren't you?
One doesn't have to be really smart, if one is a Russian who can read English and one follows the U.S. media, to see the playbook for a campaign consultant inside our news structures.
I quoted in the book extended passages in U.S. mainstream media explaining which states Donald Trump needs to win, Hillary Clinton needs to win, what kinds of voters they need to approach, where each is falling short. And there are even stories to tell you what the best way would be to reach them.
And they not only had that information, but they also had the complete playbook from the Clinton campaign, including the voter turnout models in key states.
And then they had one more advantage. Our social media platforms are designed to sell us to advertisers. And as a result, they have built into them the very means of reaching the target voter. And unlike the past, when you had to be really sophisticated as a time-buyer, you can now use those as a layperson to reach the right people efficiently.
And I want to ask you some more about the media.
But, first, I want to ask you about the language. I mean, you talk about trolls, you talk about operatives, but you call them Russian discourse saboteurs.
My theory of how the election outcome was changed is that the discourse climate was changed.
So, we know from our past research that, when you change the balance of the messages, so you have more negative messages about one candidate than the other, you shift votes, not massive numbers, but you shift enough to decide a close election.
And what that means is that, if you can get the number of messages out there to be highly negative, compared to where they would have been, in social media — that's the trolls — and in mainstream and conservative media — that's the hackers — to shift in both cases against Secretary Clinton, candidate Clinton, you're more likely to move votes against her.
That's why I call them discourse saboteurs.
What is so striking to about this book, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, is, it's about the Russians, yes, but it's also about the way the American news media covers politics.
And you talk about the tendency, the strong tendency we have in the last many decades to focus more on personalities and on process than we do on policy. How did that play into what the Russians were doing?
When the Russian hackers illegally stole the Democratic content and released it into the media stream, they were coming into an environment in which our reporters are preoccupied with getting the real story, the difference between what the candidates are really like and they really plan to do, as opposed to what they appear to be like and they say they're going to do.
So there was a press narrative that was already sitting there, and very comfortably, and amplified by that move to drop the hacked content in.
And Hillary Clinton helped make that possible by not releasing her speech text when Bernie Sanders asked for them. And so once those speech texts are released, they become fodder for a press narrative that's already preset. And what it does is creates a narrative that says, she said one thing in public and another thing in private.
Unfortunately, some of the press uses of the evidence took the actual hacked content out of context to make the case that that's what she had done, when, in those instances, she actually hadn't.
And your point is that, if the Russians had been doing what they have been doing, but if the media hasn't cooperated, this wouldn't have happened.
First, if the media had said, every time we're going to say WikiLeaks, instead, we will say Russian stolen content hacked from Democratic accounts illegally, or Russian stolen content given us by Julian Assange, who wanted to see Hillary Clinton defeated, because Hillary Clinton wanted him prosecuted for his use of national security data, the source and the message would have stayed tied.
By calling it WikiLeaks, the press made us assume that this was just normal content, and was — that it came from a news source, a legitimate source, not from the Russians.
Well, it's exactly what happened. They hacked the material, gave it to WikiLeaks, came into our media. And we lost track of the fact that it was Russian-sourced.
Senior intelligence officials are telling us that the Russians are still trying to interfere in this election, this midterm year election, and they expect the same thing to happen in 2020.
If they continue, what's the likelihood they will be successful again?
The social media platforms have made many changes to try to minimize the likelihood that they will be able to replicate 2016. They have increased the likelihood that they're going to catch anybody trying to illegally buy ads as a foreign national, for example.
The place that we haven't seen big changes is with the press. We haven't heard from our major media outlets. If tomorrow, somebody hacked our candidates and released the content into the media stream, how would you cover it? Would you cover it the same? And would you assume its accuracy, instead of questioning it and finding additional sourcing for it, before you release it into the body politic?
I would like to know what the press is going to do confronted with the same situation again.
I do have some sense of what the social media platforms will do.
Well, there's some serious work to be done all around.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, you performed a real service. The book is "Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President."
Thank you very much.
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