Election Interference: Emerging Norms of Digital Statecraft

On September 12, 2018, the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative launched an issue brief, Defining Russian Election Interference: An Analysis of Select 2014 to 2018 Cyber Enabled Incidents. As the extent of foreign interference in domestic elections over the world becomes clear, an essential first step in combatting cyber-enabled interference is developing a common terminology that can then guide strategy going forward.

The launch brought together experts from the public and private sector to discuss the complex issue of foreign election interference and possible steps to combat it. The panelists at the launch included the author of the issue brief Laura Galante, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative and Founder of Galante Strategies; Sean Kanuck, Director of Cyber, Space and Future Conflict at the International Institute for Strategic Studies; and Michele G. Markoff, Deputy Coordinator for Cyber issues at the US Department of State. The panel was moderated by Klara Jordan, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.

Opening Remarks

Laura began by briefly outlining her report, which sought to analyze and categorize the different methods of election interference. Sean remarked that there were three big take-aways from the election: first, that it was undoubtable that interference occurred; second, that attribution can be applied to the conducting state; and, third, the strategic purpose of interference is to delegitimize western democracy in the eyes of citizens in the US and Russia. Deputy Coordinator Markoff began by remarking that while election interference through the digital space is certainly a threat to fair elections in the United States, it represents an evolution of “tried and true” methods of election interference that have existed before the Iron Curtain fell.

Proposed Solutions

The US must “figure out how we want to balance certain of our values that our adversaries are pitting against one another… you can’t completely have your cake and eat it too.”

A key topic of discussion was the proposed solutions available to victim states and the pros and cons of each. There was unanimous agreement that, absent causalities, massive physical damage or disruption to domestic infrastructure, or actual manipulation of the tabulated vote count, it was unlikely that a state would resort to a military reprisal or countermeasure in response to a cyber attack. In this vein, Deputy Coordinator Markoff argued that previous US policy, which had reserved the right to meet a cyber attack with force, “was meaningless” in the context of election interference because a forceful, kinetic response would have been counter to both international law and US policy.

Indictment and prosecution has become an increasingly popular response to cyber attacks, but Kanuck posited that its value was not in actually extraditing the accused to the US – an outcome he considered highly unlikely. Rather, indictment served the purpose of “bringing the problem home to the individuals,” limiting their freedom of action and making them reevaluate the cost-benefit analysis of conducting interference. Doxing was also discussed, with Kanuck arguing that Russian injunctions preventing information on Putin’s close companions from being published demonstrated that this was a weak point for them akin to China and naming and shaming. However, he cautioned against engaging Russia in their own game. He warned that once the US starts doxing Russian oligarchs, it will find its high-profile businessmen and politicians will also be doxed, but with a mixture of true and false information. Unless the US wants to get involved in a “labyrinth of lies” that will have a serious impact on its population, whether to dox “requires an adult conversation” about core American values and the necessity of getting into the disinformation game.

Earlier that day President Trump had signed a new Executive Order on imposing sanctions in response to election interference, and Deputy Coordinator Markoff argued that it represented a tool that allowed for a swifter way of attributing and responding to cyber attacks. Panelists disagreed on whether the EO was enough to “counter the visuals” of the July Helsinki meeting between Trump and Putin, although the apparent automaticity of Order will work toward that. On the topic of sanctions generally, there was agreement that they can be effective so long as they are targeted at “Putin’s political support.” Freezing the debt of oligarchs or slow rolling financial settlement of oligarch debt were considered effective, as were restrictions on the Russian energy market – the cornerstone of its economy. Sanctions are also a useful tool as they are unlikely to escalate into armed conflict, in contrast to a more robust military response.


 “The biggest sin is calling social media, media… Facebook is an advertising company; their money is coming from ads.”

The discussion turned to the inherent issues the US faces in fighting election interference, especially information campaigns. Firstly, panelists agreed that there is now a dearth of Russia experts since the Wall fell. In contrast, Russian FSB remember Cold War tactics and leverage them to their advantage against the US. Secondly, Galante argued that there needs to be increased education of US citizens. A solution would be arming consumers with the tools they need to think critically about the sources of information they digest, without going a step too far and allowing either the government or private parties to circumscribe what is a ‘truth’. However, Deputy Coordinator Markoff noted that “the process is slow, it will not universally hit all Americans well” emphasizing that whatever the solution is, it is not an overnight fix. Taking the discussion further, Kanuck drew parallels with the investing market, whereby the government has created a regulatory environment that holds companies accountable for the information they put out, whilst still allowing high net worth investors to take more risk than the average investor. “We don’t think of democracy the same, but at its core it’s the same problem… At the heart of this issue is a decision on how you’re going to cast your vote.”

In further exploring the role that the government has to play, panelists agreed that it was dependent on the type of interference. Securing election infrastructure is intentionally left to the state and local authorities, with the federal government having less oversight. Deputy Coordinator Markoff stated that the federal role could be limited to setting a minimum floor of security standards. Fighting disinformation, on the other hand, requires a more coordinated approach and so is necessary to have more federal oversight. A particular concern regarding the role the tech industry will play would be having a non-elected, non-judicial entity circumscribing what is acceptable political speech.

Jack Watson is an intern in the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative.

Related Experts: Laura Galante

Image: (L - R) Klara Jordan, Director of the Cyber Statecraft Initiative; Laura Galante,Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative and Founder of Galante Strategies; Sean Kanuck, Director of Cyber, Space and Future Conflict at the International Institute for Strategic Studies; and Michele G. Markoff, Deputy Coordinator for Cyber issues at the US Department of State.