In the excruciatingly loud and far-too-often flippant world of what passes for political analysis in the 21st century, the University of Pennsylvania's Kathleen Hall Jamieson has always been The Serious One.
I don't mean that in a bad sense. The 71-year-old longtime director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center on the Ivy League campus has a cheerful good humor — more amused than I when my yapping 6-pound toy dog kept interrupting our phone interview. I mean that her careful research-based expertise into the way that Americans communicate — or, more frequently, don't communicate — about politics means that you're more likely to see her quoted on the gray pages of the New York Times than caught up in the nightly crossfire of CNN or MSNBC.
Jamieson is, simply put, the last person you'd ever label a "conspiracy theorist."
Which is exactly why her brand-new book — Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President — dropped like a neutron bomb right into the middle of 2018's fraught midterm elections. Jamieson's data-driven tome raises the notion that Russia's 2016 election interference campaign of hacked emails and Facebook trolls tipped the election to President Trump from the stuff of Twitter memes to the realm of academic proof.
The Penn professor's argument is bolstered not just by her decades-long reputation as a thought leader in the intersection of politics and communications, but by the fact that — like most of her ilk — she tended at first to dismiss the notion that Russian meddling had reached the level that it had caused Trump to win and Hillary Clinton to lose.
"I went into it more than an agnostic — I went into it actively skeptical," she said. But she said she started to dig deeper — and to change her mind in the process — when she tried to make sense of her data showing an unexpected drop in support for Clinton after the televised debates. That decline was driven by voters who believed Clinton says one thing and believes something different.
The drop-off happened even as broader polls suggested Clinton had "won" the debates. And while the number of voters who expressed greater distrust of the Democratic nominee was not huge, they were the ones who said they were now less likely to vote for her.
Jamieson said she came to "think my debate finding was actually a hack finding." She explained her research suggested that questions asked by debate moderators and based on the Democratic emails and papers we now know were hacked by Russian spies — for example, a hacked 2013 speech in which Clinton told the much-maligned Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs that "what you do is really important" — were the things convincing voters the Democratic nominee was two-faced. That message, we now know, was amplified by an army of Russian trolls on Facebook and Twitter.
"It almost had to hit me over the head to realize that I had data to help address it," she said of her research into the three fall 2016 debates showing Clinton's late decline in support.
In the end, it was fewer than 100,000 votes in three key states that normally vote Democratic in presidential elections — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan — that swung the Electoral College to Trump. Jamieson said her research suggested that illegal activity by Russia was more than enough to account for that small margin of difference. But the complex evidence doesn't fit on a bumper sticker; rather, it takes a book — the one she wrote — to make her case.
In Cyberwar, she traces how media discussion of the hacked Democratic emails and other documents gave the Trump campaign — and the online troll army that constantly reinforced the GOP candidate's message — became a talking point in early October 2016 that muted bad news for Trump such as the Access Hollywood tape in which he bragged of sexual assault.
Jamieson also traces in Cyberwar an almost uncanny ability by the Russians — led by 13 alleged spies indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller earlier this year — to send Facebook messages and ads to reach the most critical voters, including Christian evangelicals persuaded to stay with Trump despite the sleaze of the Access Hollywood tape, or raising doubts about Clinton with black voters that the Russian meddlers wanted to stay home on Election Day.
Since writing the book, Jamieson — along with the others most carefully following the Trump-Russia probe — has been intrigued by a finding in one of Mueller's newer indictments that Russians successfully hacked the Clinton campaign's internal modeling of voter turnout. That would have made it easier for the trolls to find the Americans most likely to stay home or vote for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein instead of Clinton. But she also noted that the Russians could have figured out which voters to target by tracking the movements of Trump, especially when he campaigned more frequently in the Rust Belt. "There could have been coordination — but there didn't have to be," she said.
Jamieson also noted that Russian hacking essentially spooked some of the key players in 2016. For example, she noted Russian activities influenced then-FBI Director James Comey's decisions to defy tradition and talk publicly about the probe into Clinton's emails after the FBI received word that Vladimir Putin's agents might release documents — fabricated, it eventually turned out — that Attorney General Loretta Lynch was compromised in that investigation.
Some may ask, so what? We're well past November 2016, and Trump — whether or not his election was legitimate — is putting an indelible stamp on the Supreme Court and issues like climate change for the next generation. But the vulnerabilities exposed in Jamieson's book — the ability of a powerful, deep-pocketed hostile actor to wage a cyberwar against democracy by using military-tested psychological warfare, or "psy-ops," on voters — loom larger than ever in a new election cycle.
This week, the New York Times reported that the Trump campaign also weighed a plan from an Israeli contractor called the Psy-Group to wage a form of political psy-ops to thwart his final challenger for the GOP nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz, that would have created "bogus personas" to influence delegates to the Cleveland convention. Team Trump insists the Psy-Group was never hired (even though a Trump-connected Middle East lobbyist paid it $2 million in late 2016) — but maybe that's because it had stumbled into a better deal with the Russians.
Already in the 2018 midterms, with nearly a month left in the campaign, several candidates — at least three, according to Microsoft, which blamed the same Russian crowd that was active in 2016 — have been hacked, including the office of Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, locked in a tight race in Missouri. Once again, the body politic is braced for an onslaught of trolls, dubious Facebook posts, and actual "fake news" in the election's closing days.
Jamieson said a lot of responsibility falls on the media, which uncritically reported the contents of Russian hacking in 2016 — with next to no internal debate about the propriety of printing stolen information. She also said journalists should do a better job of understanding how just a handful of misleading Facebook posts can be shared across millions of platforms — with disastrous consequences for democracy.
Two years later, the extent of Russian interference in American politics is still a subject of debate, but the more important questions have already been answered. Powerful players have both the tools and the knowledge to wage psychological warfare on everyday voters, and they already are deploying them. The man in the best position to crack down on these abuses — the president of the United States — seems to have benefited from them. So what can the rest of us do?