Has Wikileaks become a front for Putin’s cyber warfare?
This week has seen the US government officially accusing Russia of interfering in the presidential election
This week has seen the US government officially accusing Russia of interfering in the presidential election, claiming that “only Russia’s senior-most officials” could have authorized an attack like the one against the Democratic National Convention, which came close to derailing the Clinton primary campaign, after revelations of illicit plotting by supposedly neutral Democratic officials against her competitor, Bernie Sanders. It seems that Russia keeps upping its cyber-warfare capabilities and ambitions, even as our institutions and societies are becoming more vulnerable.
What is particularly interesting in this saga is that for once, Putin has wielded the truth rather than deploying his usual thick fog of misinformation and confusion. And he has done so through a channel that many Western liberals respect and root for: Wikileaks.
This has prompted quite a strong response against Wikileaks and Julien Assange from the security-minded parts of the establishment who had hated the outlet for years, now branding Assange as a client of Moscow. But that is to rather overstate the case. Assange is an inflexible dogmatist and consummate self-publicist. He may have been keen to leak something like the DNC plot all over the media. Nor can we make the argument that it was the wrong thing to do - if we are going to pretend that we have genuine democracy, our institutions must be able to survive the fire of transparency.
As it happened, Hilary Clinton’s Democratic campaign bounced back from the leaks, because, one the one hand, neither she nor her campaign had any involvement with the plot, and secondly because Bernie Sanders duly rallied behind her - she did get substantially more primary votes than him in the end, and Bernie Sanders does respect democracy - quite unlike other runners in the current presidential race.
Yet this is a story that we can learn from. Lies and propaganda are certainly effective political weapons. But truth can be even more effective: certainly when wielded by democracies, for whom truth is a necessary basis of political discourse, against autocracies, to whom the truth is most corrosive.
The current crisis in global political capital and authority for the West and the US in particular are large borne out of the fact that our side of the story no longer carries as much weight as it used to. And for good reason: the West has wielded propaganda and misinformation on a substantial scale, and not just in the Cold War. It has done so in its dealings with the rest of the world, even when this was not strictly necessary.
The reason why Russia’s revelations of hypocrisy against the West works is because they enable Putin to paint the country as a victim of ‘holier-than-thou’ imperialistsDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Against this, actors like Russia have been very capable of waging an ideological guerrilla war, deconstructing many of the political narratives that we have used in the West to justify our hegemony of the world. In doing so, they have learnt how to fight effectively not only against untruthful propaganda, but also against perfectly verifiable facts. And this has caught our governments, even our societies, flat-footed.
But now it surely must be time to fight back. There are two ways in which we can do so. Firstly, we can defuse the potency of these kinds of misinformation attacks by increasing transparency in our societies, in our governance and in the way we carry out business. In doing so, we not only increase proper and wholesome democratic and legal accountability, but we also pre-empt the kinds of damage that can be wrought by revelations such as those about the DNC. Wikileaks only has as much power as it has because there are still corners of our societies which are dark and hidden, where conspiracies against the public good can fester.
Secondly, we can turn the table on Russia by using the same tactics against them. It’s all very well for Russian hackers to expose hypocrisy in our political systems - wait until the functioning of the Russian political system is exposed and properly scrutinised. The reason why Russia’s revelations of hypocrisy against the West works is because they enable Putin to paint the country as a victim of “holier-than-thou” imperialists. The funny part is that if the governance of the West were to be properly compared to that of Russia, the conclusion would just have to be that we are, in fact, holier, and that we have every reason to mock, disdain and berate it for its failures and shortcomings. Though what we supposed meddling imperialists really want is the luxury to not have to care about Russia at all.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy, Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim