The technique of choice heading into the election is something experts have come to call “perception hacking,” which essentially means manipulating people into thinking they are being manipulated — to the point that they cease to trust in democracy itself. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union discovered the effectiveness of laundering its narratives through unwitting sources in target nations to lend them more legitimacy. Today’s Russia exploits the same tactic: dangling fantastical scoops in front of low-profile journalists to bait them into writing conspiratorial false stories, in the hope that reputable publications will eventually mention them, even as rumor. Especially clever is planting tales of supposedly far-reaching influence operations that either don’t actually exist or are having little impact.
These less advanced methods, of course, wouldn’t work nearly so well if more advanced methods hadn’t caught us entirely off our guard in 2016. The declaration on the day of the 2018 midterm elections by a group claiming to be the Russian troll farm the Internet Research Agency that “we are choosing for you” might have seemed ridiculous a decade ago, and it is still ridiculous today — but, eager not to make the same mistake again, we are more prepared to worry. The ransomware attacks on towns, cities and contractors who run their voting systems on which the New York Times reported this past week might be part of this same game. The salvos don’t have to succeed. They only have to scare us into thinking that there is a Kremlin agent messing with every machine, and a troll writing every Facebook post.
Leaders and everyday voters alike now confront the challenge of preparing without panicking — of being alert without being paranoid. President Trump compounds the problem. He himself is conducting a large-scale perception hack on the country: conjuring up an unreality where the mail-in ballots that will make up a substantial portion of this year’s vote cannot be accurately counted, and where any result that doesn’t go his way will necessarily be fraudulent. The pre-2016 pitfall may have been that people were trusting without verifying. Now we must verify when our reflex is to distrust, too.