Last Friday, January 6, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a new report about Russia’s alleged influence on America’s 2016 presidential election. Titled “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” the report is a declassified version of a highly sensitive document put together by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Agency (NSA), and comes a week after President Barack Obama’s “unprecedented” move to expel thirty-five diplomats from the United States in response to Russia’s alleged meddling.
The New York Times called the report a “damning and surprisingly detailed account of Russia’s efforts to undermine the American electoral system and Mrs. Clinton in particular.” In reality, however, the report provides little more than weak analysis of Russia’s propaganda and disinformation efforts – tactics that the Kremlin has been using at home and abroad for some time, and that should have already been known to U.S. intelligence agencies.
Though it has been referred to as a “report on Russian hacking,” the report fails to provide any smoking-gun evidence connecting the hackers with the Russian government. In fact, the hacking itself gets the least amount of attention in the twenty-five page document. Instead, the report focuses on the activities of Kremlin-sponsored television network RT and paid Internet trolls, claiming they were key actors in “the influence campaign.”
According to the report, RT conducted strategic messaging about the election for the Russian government. The report analyzes RT’s news programming, narratives, and commentary to substantiate its claims. Its conclusions are hardly new, however. Since RT’s inception, media analysts and journalists in the United States have examined RT’s news coverage, highlighting its pro-Russian agenda. The U.S. intelligence agencies are late to the party.
The report also claims that “Russia used trolls as well as RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Secretary Clinton.” This too is hardly a new finding. Much has been written about the so-called “troll factory,” an Internet Research Organization based in Saint-Petersburg, that pays professional trolls to spread false messages and provoke online audiences into heated debates and discussions. Professional Internet trolling is also not unique to Russia – it is a global trend.
Undermining its findings even further, the report includes a disclaimer, towards the end, in a section on “Estimative Language,” which states that references to “High confidence generally indicates that judgements are based on high-quality information from multiple sources. High confidence in a judgement does not imply that the assessment is a fact or a certainty; such judgements might be wrong.” The disclaimer strongly suggests that most, if not all, findings provided to the public so far are neither hard facts nor certainties. Nevertheless, many, including members of the media, have accepted the government’s claims as impeachable truth, beyond questioning.
By shifting the conversation from hacking to a broader “influence campaign,” U.S. intelligence agencies managed to get away with failing to provide hard proof to support their hacking allegations. Instead, their claims, as captured in the Friday report, are likely to do little more than exacerbate hysteria surrounding Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. election.