“Voters in a mature and stable democracy should be more agile, more analytical, and more responsible for the sanctity and safeguarding of their own thinking,” Professor Matthew Crosston of the Institute for National Security Studies said in an interview with the Balkans Post.
Here’s the full transcript of the interview:
Balkans Post: What's your take on the whole narrative of Russian interference in U.S. elections to subvert American democracy? What's missing in this narrative?
Matthew Crosston: I have written at length on these issues for several years now. The simple reality in the United States is that no one is paying attention to the “descending narrative of interference”, as I call it, simply because the outrage over President Trump possibly benefiting from it incenses most Democrats and neutral political observers. By “descending narrative” I mean there has been a sliding scale of shifting definition for the very term “interference”. At the beginning, many people were certain that a “smoking gun” of direct electoral interference and Trump campaign team collusion would be found and made explicit. Unfortunately for them, that did not happen. Consequently, it became necessary to change the definition of interference in order to keep life in the story itself. So, instead of obvious collusion the discussion shifted to “inappropriate interactions,” instead of direct vote-rigging it shifted to “sowing social discord.” For those highly motivated to find some wrongdoing with the current American president, this shift was strategically shrewd: when the definitions are changed to something more amorphous, vague, and esoteric, their lifespan becomes quite literally eternal. Unfortunately, and this is something the Russians exploit and rejoice in, those changes also mean the wrongdoing becomes almost unprovable. This shifting from the explicit to implicit, from the specific to esoteric, from evidence-based to innuendo-based, is what’s missing most in the narrative and therefore the entire discussion of Russian interference becomes almost irrelevant.
BP: You said no actual evidence exists of Russian-sourced interference physically changing a single vote or single vote count. If that's the case, where is all this noise about Russian interference coming from?
Matthew Crosston: We can feel confident in my assertion because we do have evidence of attempts being made to infiltrate via cyber intrusion methods actual voting kiosks and electoral vote-counting programs. But that evidence led to the reveal that the attempted intrusions failed and no votes were successfully altered or rigged for any one side. It is, of course, not a happy day for a stable democracy when you find cyber attempts to hack into its formal electoral processes, so perhaps this brazen (even if ultimately failed) strategy caused so much indignation that it continues to fuel much of the noise going on today. But additionally, the aforementioned shift has become pervasive, which also fuels the commotion. What was originally a media-based phenomenon now manifests itself even within the hallowed halls of the American analytical intelligence agencies. The FBI, CIA, and NSA all lament that Russia continues to try to “interfere” in American elections, whether the 2018 Congressional cycle or the upcoming 2020 Presidential one. However, what these august bodies do not mention is the distinction in how their complaints about Russian cyber interference are now decidedly more mental/emotional/social rather than physical and direct as they were back in 2015-2016. The American Intelligence Community is warning today about Russia’s aim to breed hatred and animosity between the voters. This is why I am disturbed and disappointed: any attempt to physically alter actual votes is a real and present danger; but treating the attempts of a foreign country to “mind manipulate” voters’ thinking through false stories planted on social media platforms as the same kind of threat I find infantile, laughable, and abhorrent. Voters in a mature and stable democracy should be more agile, more analytical, and more responsible for the sanctity and safeguarding of their own thinking. If it is true that Russia can undermine American democracy via Facebook posts, then American democracy is damned by its own hands.
BP: What's your take on the U.S. interference in the electoral process of other countries? And how have such interferences affected those countries?
Matthew Crosston: This is an important question that is literally never asked in the United States. One must remember that part of Russia’s motivation for enacting these initiatives is based at least partially if not wholly on the conviction that America, through its own subtle machinations with NGOs, grassroots organizations, and direct financial investment, has always sought to be a “social influencer” in other countries’ electoral processes. Not surprisingly, Russia sees that as direct interference in the internal affairs of its own political regime. Obviously, Russia also suspects (based on much direct and open diplomatic evidence from the U.S. State Department, I might add) that such interference will always be directed against President Putin. So, in a sense, Russia’s campaign leading up to 2016 was truly seen by the Kremlin as an act of comeuppance and revenge for America’s campaigns in Moscow in 2012. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander as the American saying goes. America, of course, denies any wrongdoing, but more often than not this denial is not based on the absence of proof but rather the conviction that America is supporting the more “real” democratic process/person/party. In other words, America tries to position itself as having the right to interfere in other countries’ elections if it believes this interference is standing up for “true and proper democracy.” Unquestionably, this “properness” almost always gets reflected in the support for opposition groups against the in-power government. The difference between Russia and other countries is simply one of bravado: Russia has never been afraid to stand up at the microphone and literally declare how it will not stand for such policies and that it will, in fact, hit back against them. That it can behave exactly as America does. Ironically, therefore, you could say that Russian interference is deemed justified in Moscow because of a precedent set by the United States. It is an expression of rejection against an interference double-standard, if you will. Russia in not stating that interference is good or that interference should take place in democratic elections. It simply is saying if America feels it is empowered to do so, for whatever reason, then Russia has the same right as well. In short, power is its own justification. Unfortunately, this more subtle and philosophically intriguing aspect of the discussion is also being ignored all across the West today.
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies.