There are many explanations for why the 2016 US presidential election turned out the way it did, but leaked documents certainly played a role.
Laura Galante, a security expert who analyses how states use cyberspace, believes the existence of hacked emails — taken from the Democractic National Committee, the Hillary Clinton campaign, and elsewhere — exploited a vulnerability in the human mind, helping to sway the election.
“It’s what Russia has long called ‘reflexive control,’ or the ability to use information on someone else so they make their own decision that’s favourable to you,” she said onstage at the TED 2017 conference in Vancouver, Canada.
Galante posited that the simplest way to take down a democracy is to turn its most powerful asset, the open minds of citizens, into a vulnerability.
“You need to get people in democracies to start questioning the system, to make it occur to them that their institutions are failing them, that the country they knew is in freefall,” she said. “To do that, you need to infiltrate the information spheres of these democracies.”
Galante noted that for a long time, the general public was more focused on the content of the hacked DNC emails than the news that the hacks came from a known Russian intelligence unit called APT 28 (also known as Pawn Storm or Fancy Bear).
One reason this fact didn’t get much attention, she acknowledged, was simply that the Obama administration was reluctant to reveal what they knew about the Russian hackers for fear of being perceived as meddlers in the election. But more importantly, Galante believes we ignored this fact for so long because the US was not equipped to deal with modern information warfare.
It wasn’t that the Russians were releasing untrue information; they were releasing real emails that people could use to draw their own conclusions. But not many Americans were thinking about the geopolitical implications of why they had those emails in the first place.
“The Russian government was the first to recognise how evolution had turned your mind into the most exploitable device on the planet,” she said.
As evidenced by the election, it’s hard to combat these kinds of leaks once they’re out. Galante’s advice: “Think critically, call out falsehoods, and above all, have the courage to pursue the truth.”