Show an ad over header. AMP

The lines are blurring between foreign meddling and domestic disinformation

American democracy faces what could be its greatest test in a lifetime as signs mount that Russia is working to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, while the Trump administration and its allies systematically minimize those efforts, in the process becoming an accessory to them.

Why it matters: It's becoming ever more difficult to find any boundary between foreign meddling and domestic disinformation.


The big picture: As journalist David Halberstam once observed of the McCarthyist convulsions of the 1950s, "If the center did not fold, it did not exactly hold, either." As the president and his proxies invent monsters to destroy, while declaring that real monsters are imaginary, the center of the American polity faces unprecedented strain from within and without.

Driving the news: Just last week...

Microsoft announced that hackers linked to Russia as well as China and Iran were attempting to infiltrate political organizations including both the Trump and Biden campaigns.

  • It's unclear whether these campaigns are "mere" spying attempts or preludes to a 2016-style hack-and-dump campaign seeking to alter the American political dynamic.

A whistleblower told House lawmakers that, while working as the top intelligence official in the Department of Homeland Security, acting agency chief Chad Wolf told him "to cease providing intelligence assessments on the threat of Russian interference in the United States, and instead start reporting on interference activities by China and Iran."

  • Wolf, according to the whistleblower, was working on orders from national security adviser Robert O’Brien.

The Treasury Department sanctioned Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian parliamentarian and active Russian agent.

  • The move was a belated official acknowledgment that Derkach’s campaign to smear Joe Biden is in essence a Russia-backed disinformation operation.
  • Not mentioned by Treasury: Trump lawyer and confidante Rudy Giuliani pushed material from Derkach.
  • The Derkach operation has also received the imprimatur of legitimacy from Senate Homeland Security Committee Chair Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whose investigation into Biden is built in part around Derkach-provided material.

Microsoft’s disclosures make clear that Chinese and Iranian cyber spies are also targeting U.S. politicians and political operatives.

  • Top U.S. intelligence officials have said that both Beijing and Tehran are seeking to influence the 2020 election, and they prefer that former Vice President Biden is victorious in November.

Yes, but: Only Russia has a demonstrated record of taking the momentous step beyond cyber spying to actually using pilfered political data in service of covert action: hacking, then leaking material strategically to sow chaos in the U.S. and tip the scales toward its preferred candidate.

And unlike in 2016, the levers of federal power are being used to stamp out public disclosures on the subject.

  • As willing, powerful U.S. political figures circulate material from interference campaigns while also downplaying the threat they pose, the line between foreign and domestic disinformation is blurring, and perhaps eroding entirely.
  • There is no intelligence or national security solution to what has become, in essence, an acute domestic political crisis.

Be smart: Leaders in Moscow can watch CNN or read the Washington Post and interpret the administration’s timorous response to Russian active measures clearly as tacit encouragement — or at least implicit tolerance.

What's next: A close election in November will likely be contested, and ballot counting could drag on for weeks; legal challenges, for months.

  • Foreign intelligence services may rush into the void, seeking to exacerbate political tensions and weaken the United States.
  • Domestic politicians, including the president himself, will likely sow fear, uncertainty and doubt about the results, perhaps amplifying disinformation created by foreign actors. Other levers of state power can be used for the same ends.
  • Massive street protests, and other forms of nonviolent and even violent extra-parliamentary politics, may become widespread.

The bottom line: America is in a vulnerable place, and we simply don’t know what might push the wobbling center toward collapse.

Biden's climate orders to include halt on new oil-and-gas leases on public lands

President Biden will signnew executive actions today that provide the clearest signs yet of his climate plans — and will begin an intense battle with the oil industry.

Driving the news: One move will freeze issuance of new oil-and-gas leases on public lands and waters "to the extent possible," per a White House summary.

Keep reading... Show less

Silicon Valley backlash grows as vocal tech faction boycotts

Silicon Valley may be a "state of mind," but it's also very much a real enclave in Northern California. Now, a growing faction of the tech industry is boycotting it.

Why it matters: The Bay Area is facing for the first time the prospect of losing its crown as the top destination for tech workers and startups — which could have an economic impact on the region and force it to reckon with its local issues.

Keep reading... Show less

Telework's tax mess: A permanent side effect of the pandemic

As teleworkers flit from city to city, they're creating a huge tax mess.

Why it matters: Our tax laws aren't built for telecommuting, and this new way of working could have dire implications for city and state budgets.

Keep reading... Show less

The search for the next generation of newsroom leaders.

The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Reuters, HuffPost and Wired are all looking for new editors. Soon, The New York Times will be too.

Why it matters: The new hires will reflect a new generation — one that's addicted to technology, demands accountability and expects diversity to be a priority.

Keep reading... Show less

Young people want checks on Big Tech's power

Data: Generation Lab; Chart: Sara Wise/Axios

The next generation of college-educated Americans thinks social media companies have too much power and influence on politics and need more government regulation, according to a new survey by Generation Lab for Axios.

Why it matters: The findings follow an election dominated by rampant disinformation about voting fraud on social media; companies' fraught efforts to stifle purveyors of disinformation including former President Trump; and a deadly Jan. 6 insurrection over the election organized largely online.

Keep reading... Show less

Insights

mail-copy

Get Goodhumans in your inbox

Most Read

More Stories