We've seen this political hacking movie before

It’s hard now, with the benefit of hindsight, to remember how long it took for the American public to wake up to the seriousness of election interference.

But during the 2016 campaign, questions about Russian meddling were drowned out by other issues that now seem trivial by comparison.

The email dumps acted like a form of slow-drip water torture for the Clinton campaign, destroying her momentum and confirming voter doubts that she was shady and secretive

Although Russian hackers did penetrate some US voter registration rolls in 2016, the electoral system itself was not “hacked”. There’s no evidence that hackers added votes to Trump’s tally, for example.

What Russia did was to weaponise stolen information, spread mistruths and amplify divisions that already existed in American society.

In short, Putin polluted the waters that allow democracy to flow freely – exporting abroad what he had long practised at home.


The first prong of the interference operation was propaganda.

As Mueller outlined in indictments released last year, the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) pumped “fake news” into the American information ecosystem throughout the 2016 campaign.

Using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google, the IRA published false information intended to boost Trump’s chances and harm Clinton.

More significant, though, was the theft of emails from Democratic Party servers and the decision to distribute them to WikiLeaks. This operation was carried out by Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate, known as the GRU.

GRU officials allegedly used “spear phishing” emails – which trick recipients into revealing confidential information, such as passwords – to steal emails from employees of Clinton’s campaign. These employees included her campaign chairman John Podesta.

The officials were also allegedly able to hack into the Democratic National Committee computer networks, covertly monitor the activity of dozens of Clinton staffers and implant hundreds of files of malicious code on their computers.

On July 22, three days before the Democratic National Convention, WikiLeaks released over 20,000 documents stolen from the DNC network by the Russian hackers.

The leaked emails, which suggested the party’s leadership had conspired against Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, prompted the resignation of the DNC chairwoman, chief executive, chief financial officer and communications officer.

Then on October 7, WikiLeaks published 2,000 emails emails stolen from Podesta’s account – including copies of Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street bankers.

The release provided a welcome distraction for Trump, who only an hour earlier had been embarrassed by the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which he boasted about grabbing women by the p-ssy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets US President Donald Trump. Credit:Evan Vucci

It also helped drown out a statement by intelligence agencies revealing they had concluded Russia was behind the Democratic Party hack.

The email dumps acted like a form of slow-drip water torture for the Clinton campaign, destroying her momentum and confirming voter doubts that she was shady and secretive.

So many parts of Australian life – from the food we eat to the TV shows we watch – now come to us via the US.

Hopefully we don’t add having a federal election compromised by a hostile foreign power to the list.

Matthew Knott is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age based in the United States.

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