Quora Question: Did Russian Hacking Influence the Election Result?

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, December 6. The 1917 Russian Revolution will be commemorated in the country with the involvement of the Ministry of Culture. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

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Answer from William Murphy, professor of American history:

Before the election, Donald Trump said that widespread voter fraud would alter the results and ensure a Clinton win. Obama, and just about every election law expert in the country, said this would not happen, and it did not.

There is widespread misunderstanding about what, exactly, is being alleged regarding the Russian hacks. No one of any credibility—and certainly not President Obama—have said that the Russians hacked voting machines and altered the vote totals as a way of falsifying the election. There is, at the present time, no evidence that has been publicly released or discussed suggesting that this was the case. For the same reason that widespread voter fraud would be difficult or impossible to pull off, falsifying an election through hacking electronic voting machines would be difficult or impossible to do.

I know a lot of people will say “You do not know what the Russians did or did not do because the evidence has not been made public.” But there actually has been a lot that has been made public. It’s just not widely understood, and some people choose to reject it for their own reasons.

What the CIA, and 17 other U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded, is that there were several violations of the computer systems used by the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. These violations allowed the hackers to access private emails and internal campaign documents and memos. These were selectively leaked to Wikileaks, who then leaked them to the U.S. media, in an attempt to generate a constant stream of negative news coverage relating to Hillary Clinton and her campaign. The CIA has tied these events to Russia because they were carried out by hacker groups and collectives previously known to U.S. intelligence as fronts set up by Russian intelligence services to carry out cyberattacks while maintaining a layer of deniability between them and the Russian government, and the software used in these hacking efforts matches software previously identified by the CIA as having been developed by Russian intelligence services for launching cyber attacks like this.

In addition, the voter registration databases of two states (Arizona and North Carolina) were hacked in September. This was reported by those states to the FBI before the election.

Finally, there is evidence (according to the CIA in published reports) that some of these Russian cyber units were posing as pro-Trump users on many social media websites, posting comments that were favorable to Trump or hostile to Clinton, and helping spread false news stories that benefited Trump and/or were harmful to Clinton.

This was basically a massive propaganda campaign to influence public opinion in favor of Trump and against Clinton.

To put it in simpler terms, no one stuffed any ballot boxes here, but someone did do the equivalent of breaking into campaign offices and rifling through their confidential files and paperwork, stealing information and files that could be portrayed as damaging, and then selectively leaking that information. It’s just that all those files and paperwork are now kept on computers, which can be broken into remotely.

This did not falsify the election results. It may have influenced how people voted, but the degree to which it may have done this is unknown and unknowable. It was not election fraud in the sense that Trump warned about all year. He was saying lots of people would vote illegally, or vote two or three or four times each, to make sure Clinton got more votes than he did. This did not happen, and was never likely to happen because there are already extensive safeguards against it.

But someone was breaking into the computer systems of one side, stealing information from those computer systems, and using that information to try to influence how people voted. And this is not something that has only been brought up since the election; the Washington Post reported that the CIA briefed leaders of both parties in Congress on these ongoing activities in September, and the offices of the Director of National Intelligence and the head of the CIA issued a joint statement outlining these efforts on October 7.

So, what happened is very different from what Trump was warning about and what Obama and Clinton both said would not happen. It did not “rig” the results of the election but may have had some influence on how people voted. That, at least, is the conclusion by our intelligence services at this time.

Now, you can choose to reject this information if you want. You can say the CIA is making it up, or claim we don’t really know what the evidence is. I personally do not care and I am not going to argue about it; if you want to say in the comments that it’s all a lie or we don’t really know what the CIA thinks happened or what evidence they have you are free to say all of that but you should not expect a response from me. What I have stated above is the information that is currently publicly available. You can believe it or not. But it is not the case that Russia “rigged” the election, in the sense that it electronically stuffed ballot boxes, and yet it is also not inconsistent to say that hacking and propaganda efforts like these could influence how people voted while also stating that widespread voter fraud, meaning illegal voting practices, could not happen on a scale large enough to alter the “honest” outcome of the election. It is certainly the case that this election exposed vulnerabilities to our electoral system that were previously unknown or not well understood before.

And like I said, you can accept this information or don’t accept it, I don’t care; my intention with this answer is not to persuade anyone who chooses to reject these reports. If I have clarified what the allegations are, then that’s enough as far as I’m concerned.

Why is Obama now doubting on the election process that it is rigged by the Russians when he himself rejected it when Trump said the same? originally appeared on Quora—the knowledge-sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions: