The Growth of Parallel Universes in the Trump Russian-Connection Debate: A Cybersecurity Perspective

If you watch your news on CNN, the headline story will inevitably swirl around the purported connection between the Trump administration and the Russian government. It doesn’t matter what the story is, eventually, it will spin in this direction. If, on the other hand, you watch the same story on Fox, you will be told there is no connection and the story does not deserve any appreciable coverage. The gap separating the pro and anti-Trump camps, as reflected in the media, has become an abyss. In fact, it is as if each side is existing in its own, non-intersecting, parallel universe. One side simply cannot see, or cannot accept, the viewpoint of the other. This widening gap has been found in a recent Gallup Poll.  (Note: The same poll found that most Americans (64%) believe the media favors Democrats.)

gallup poll media

Oddly, this bias in the media has not negatively impacted viewership. In fact, just the opposite seems to be happening as all main media outlets have shown a sharp increase in ratings.

media ratings

It may, in fact, be the case that viewers on both sides of the political spectrum prefer biased news over objective, truth-based news. In other words, media seems to be playing a divisive roll in the American social fabric because that’s what people are seeking. It is an enabling relationship which pushes both camps to be more and more extreme. The media know what their viewers want and will, in some cases, go to unethical lengths to give it to them. The fear is that if they don’t enable their viewers in their addiction to news that supports their views, they may lose them. In no case is this seen more clearly than in coverage of Trump’s possible connections to Russia.

In an attempt to moderate this increasing divergence, I would like to look at this issue from a cybersecurity perspective, which I hope may be somewhat more objective. Of course, I’m realistic enough to know that whatever I write will change few opinions and probably antagonize everyone in the process.

The reason a cybersecurity perspective is justified is simply because this is, at root, a cybersecurity issue. Remember that the current media parallelism has its roots in the DNC hack announced back in June, 2016. The actual attack occurred much earlier as the FBI had contacted the DNC back in September of 2015 to inform them that they thought that their network may have been infiltrated, possibly by Russian hackers. The DNC only confirmed the truth of this in late April, 2016. In May, 2016, the DNC contacted cybersecurity firm, Crowdstrike, and they soon discovered that the network had, indeed, been compromised. It was at that time that Crowdstrike claimed that the DNC had been penetrated by two separate Russian hacking groups known as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear. Crowdstrike reached this conclusion based on the digital fingerprints the attackers left during the hack. Crowdstrike had seen these actors before and, therefore, the company was familiar with their modus operandi. The bad news was that these attackers appeared to have been on the DNC network for almost a year, as Motherboard reported the Crowdstrike claim that the DNC was likely penetrated in the summer of 2015.

But let’s step back for a moment. If this hack began in mid 2015, it was at a time when few people took candidate Trump seriously. In fact, right-leaning Breitbart news posted an article by Ben Shapiro in October titled, “Is Trump a Serious Candidate”. Shapiro reached no clear conclusion but pointed to a Gallop poll released in July which showed that most people didn’t take him seriously. Here is that poll.

gallup trump candidate

True, by September, Trump had gained more traction, but not much. New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera, wrote, “I wonder, in fact, whether even now Trump is a serious candidate, or whether this is all a giant publicity ploy…I don’t think he’ll ever put himself at the mercy of actual voters in a primary. To do so is to risk losing. And everyone will know it. He’ll be out before Iowa. You read it here first.”

Oops.

So the big question is: Why would the Russians be interested in promoting Trump when he had no apparent road to victory at the time they first hacked the DNC? Clearly, promoting Trump was not their initial motive. More likely, assuming the hackers were really connected to the Russian government, is that they wanted to disrupt the Clinton campaign or the U.S. election in general. They may have changed their focus as Trump rose to the top of the candidate heap, but they clearly did not have Trump in mind when they started their hack.

It should be noted here that the FBI never had access to the DNC servers so they basically took Crowdstrike’s word on the specific groups involved in the hack. The reason why the FBI were so quick to take Crowdstrike’s word for this was because of what Russia had done in previous elections. This is why they initially jumped to the Russian conclusion when they warned the DNC in September, 2015. Crowdstrike only claimed a medium confidence level in ascribing the attack to Russia, but there was little doubt in the FBI’s mind.

In June, 2016, Guccifer 2 appeared online with the announcement that he had given the hacked DNC documents to Wikileaks. Remember that the initial winner in this release was Bernie Sanders, as it appeared he was correct in assuming that the DNC was trying to back-burner him. Also keep in mind that Russian TV, RT, was, if anything, championing the Sanders and not the Trump campaign when this occurred. Later, when Trump praised Putin’s leadership ability and questioned NATO, RT and the Kremlin showed him more interest.

Guccifer 2 claimed to be working independently and ridiculed Crowdstrike for trying to pin the hack on Russia. Although I believe Guccifer 2 is Russian, based on metadata, release times, and linguistic analysis, I, or no one, can link him directly to the Russian government. He may even be trying to pretend to be Russian by giving out false clues. That’s the way things are in cyberland. Others claim that Guccifer 2 was a disgruntled DNC employee. The reason for these diverse conclusions stems from the fact that any hack is difficult to conclusively pin to a particular perpetrator. As cybersecurity expert Brian Krebs notes, “I can’t say for certain if the Russian government was involved in directing or at least supporting attacks on U.S. political parties.” Only those who perpetrated the hack can confirm it. Along these lines, a member of the hacktivist group, Anonymous, who goes by the name, Commander X, claimed, in March, that Guccifer 2 was actually a group of hackers not connected to the Russian government. According to him, the Guccifer 2 group teamed with other hacker groups to undermine the U.S. election for the sole purpose of causing confusion. He wrote that “this band included the Guccifer Crew, Anonymous Russia, WikiLeaks, and a handful of western Information Activists who chose to fly no flag for this action.” He claimed that the only election disruption that the Russian government sponsored was that based on using trolls and false news.

Crowdstrike and other cybersecurity firms claim they found evidence in the malware code and other places that led them to suspect Russian operants behind the hack. Other experts believe that Russian hackers are too good to leave any evidence of their origins. They claim that good hackers always try to leave indicators that point to other attackers in other countries. Krebs disagrees with this assessment claiming that the arrogance of the Russian hackers may have led them to be unconcerned as to whether they were uncovered or not. Why? Because the Russian government will protect hackers from extradition if push comes to shove. However, this arrogance may only be true for unaffiliated hackers. The individual Russian hacker may not care if they get caught, but it is unlikely that the Russian government would want to be caught meddling in the U.S. election. In other words, if careless mistakes were made which led investigators to a Russian source, it is unlikely that these hackers worked for the Russian government. Of course, this is not conclusive evidence. Russian government hackers could still make mistakes, but they would not be obvious, easily spotted mistakes.

Julian Assange has always claimed that the hacker who gave him the DNC emails was not connected to the Russian government but did not and could not rule out the possibility that the emails were ‘laundered’ through a third party. A Reuter’s article, posted in January, sites an anonymous source within the intelligence community who stated that this was, in fact, what occurred.

For argument’s sake, let’s just assume that Russia did participate in the hack on the DNC and that they released these documents to Wikileaks. It’s still a big leap from here to saying that Trump colluded with the Russian government to win the election. In fact, in recent weeks, the evidence has been piling up against this line of reasoning. Here is some of it.

March 6- Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told ABC : “There was no evidence whatsoever, at the time, of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”

March 16- Former Acting CIA chief Michael Morell told NBC News: “On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke but there is no fire, at all…There’s no little campfire, there’s no little candle, there’s no spark. And there’s a lot of people looking for it.”

March 23- Crowdstrike’s attempt to increase its confidence rating in Russian participation in the DNC hack from medium to high fails. (note: I contacted Crowdstrike to see if they would like to comment on their current position concerning the DNC hack but, as of this writing, I have received no reply.)

April – BuzzFeed News, after interviewing 6 members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who are investigating Russian interference in the election, concluded,  “there’s a tangible frustration over what one official called ‘wildly inflated’ expectations surrounding the panel’s fledgling investigation… I don’t think the conclusions are going to meet people’s expectations.”

Let me make it perfectly clear. If undisputed proof was found linking President Trump to colluding with the Russian government in order to either gain an advantage in the 2016 election or to receive some financial benefits, I would be the first to call for impeachment. The facts, however, at least for the moment, are clearly heading in the opposite direction. But here is the problem. It is not only the majority of democrats that have gotten on the Russian connection bus but most of the mainstream media as well. They have ignored all the signs warning them of danger in order to achieve their goal of delegitimizing and ending the Trump presidency. It is the same Quixotic hope they displayed when they used celebrities to try to get electoral college delegates to change their votes. Driven by what is, no doubt for them, higher ideals, they have reached the point where they are balanced on the edge of an ideological cliff. They have simply failed to ask the question: What happens if we are wrong?  If the truth comes down on the opposite side, how much credibility will they be able to salvage? In short, they have put it all on the line for this quest.

msm bus

Fox News, the only right-leaning mainstream media outlet, can often be accused of spinning any confusing tweet from President Trump to make it look more rational than it actually is. If Donald Trump tweeted that an alien spacecraft with little green men had landed in his garden, Fox would tell you not to take the tweet literally. They would claim he was speaking metaphorically about the ever-present danger of illegal aliens. CNN, on the other hand, would warn viewers not to take the tweet seriously because it was only made to distract people from the true issue; the Trump connection to Russia. If you don’t believe this line of reasoning, watch how MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell suggests that Putin orchestrated the Syrian gas attack to distract from the investigation into Trump’s connections with Russia. In short, that Trump approved of gassing babies as a way to escape scrutiny. I’m not the only one who sees this as going over the edge. Many left-leaning, MSNBC-watching Americans felt the same. But take a look to see what you think.

This is what happens when you look at events through the tinted lens of an assumption. If you accept a conspiracy theory as fact, you will pick and choose only those aspects of a story that supports this ‘fact’. I have followed some of the discussions that members of the left have been having on this topic in various forums and I have to congratulate them on the depth to which they’ve investigated this issue. However, their conclusions can be summed up by posts like the following.

“You don’t just assemble the “greatest minds” and find out literally the ten people closest to you, with the closest ties to your organization, have deep-rooted Russian contacts. The balance of probability of that happening by accident are astronomical. You add in Trump’s own ties (Russian money launderers operating out of his pent house, buying his real estate for more than double its value, his refusal to speak badly of Putin, his request for Russia to hack Clinton’s emails on live TV), and you have a scenario where it is, quite literally probabilistically impossible for him to not have been in illegal collusion with the Russian government.”

Actually, in today’s business or political world, it is not unusual for people in administrative positions to have ties with Russia. The odds of this happening are within the parameters of normal probability and are by no means ‘astronomical’. I would have to ask the poster of the above comment to explain what they meant by ‘deep-rooted’ and to name the ten people with these ties. To support their position, the poster notes other conspiracy theories. The Russians-funneling-money-to-Trump theory has been debunked by the rumor checking site, Snopes, as “mostly false”.

snopes

I realize that those who believe in collusion will focus on the word, “mostly”. That determination was arrived at because Trump said he probably sold some condos to Russians at sometime or other, thus, he would have received some money from Russians. I should note here that many on the right consider Snopes as having a liberal bias.

It is not only the left that is guilty of twisting facts. There are just as many, if not more, bizarre conspiracy theories on the right. Fox News has recently suspended commentator Andrew Napolitano for propagating a false story about then President Obama asking British intelligence to investigate Donald Trump.

As both universes continue to fly away from each other at an ever-increasing rate of speed, we can expect more false news to be treated as news and more real news to be spun into biased news, and this might be precisely what viewers want. To stop the situation from spinning out of control, to bridge the gap, truth must triumph over opinion. There’s a word for that. It’s called, journalism.

 

 

About Steve Mierzejewski

Marketing consultant for InZero Systems, developer of the next generation in hardware-separated security, WorkPlay Technology. I've worked in Poland, Japan, Korea, China, and Afghanistan. I'm a writer, technical editor, and an educator. I also do some work as a test developer for Michigan State University.
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