For more than two decades, I have studied, researched, worked, and written on Russian foreign and security policy. Currently, as a resident of Bismarck, I am concerned about our state’s security when it comes to Russia, especially given the fact that Russian hackers attempted to infiltrate our state voting rolls.
We must ask ourselves: What are we going to do about it? Action must be taken because any indifference to Russian interference will only invite more intrusion and hysteria will inhibit our ability to protect our democracy.
More than a year ago, 17 of our nation’s intelligence agencies determined that the Russian government conducted a coordinated campaign to undermine the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Then, this past February, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted 13 Russians working for the so-called Internet Research Agency who worked to “sow discord in the U.S. political system” since 2014.
And now, we in North Dakota just found out from a new report authored by the U.S. Congress’ House Science, Space, and Technology Committee that trolls used Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to inflame debate over our state’s energy policy — particularly fracking — and to cause further friction between Native and non-Native residents over where to put the Dakota Access Pipeline.
So, what are we doing about it? Are we going to turn this into yet another partisan debate, as our national leadership has done, or are we going to take action?
In my mind, there is nothing partisan in calling out the Russian government for interfering. I have lived in former Soviet countries that experience Russian information campaigns designed to destabilize society and cause war. In Lithuania and Poland, I’ve spoken with experts in and out of government about Russian interference in their energy systems since the mid-1990s. And, most recently, I have attended conferences in Europe dedicated to countering Russian tactics.
What I’ve learned over the years is that Russia views a prosperous democratic state with functioning, transparent institutions that are guided by the rule of law as a direct threat to its more authoritarian and populist style of government. President Vladimir Putin uses energy as a weapon in weakening democratic foes.
Granted, we may never know the degree to which Russian trolls affected the mindset of Americans in 2016; indeed, President Donald Trump would have carried North Dakota regardless of trolls.
However, this does not mean that we should not prepare ourselves for a future in which Russian or other nations’ trolls are able to manipulate what should be our state’s decision-making processes and the security of our voters.
And to those who believe they may have inadvertently benefited from a Russian troll "on their side" led by a "strongman" such as Putin, the Russians may decide to change sides next time. In fact, on the DAPL issue, the congressional report notes that Russian trolls did choose both sides, inflaming sensitives all around.
The power to lessen Russia’s influence is in our hands. Between indifference to Russian trolls and hysteria over increasing Russian influence, there is a middle ground. In addition to securing our voting practices and employing technology to determine the source of social media posts, one solution is to stop using social media as a means to debating a topic, and instead meet in person to strengthen our relations and enhance communication. It is critical that we work together to make our state stronger internally so that we can defeat any external actor bent on dividing us.