It’s hard to imagine that the Russian cyberthreat could be more disruptive than what has been uncovered so far. But the focus on email hacking and possible collusion between the Donald Trump campaign and Russia in 2016 has overshadowed other Russian efforts to disrupt U.S. civil society. In January, when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence confirmed Russian efforts to undermine the U.S. presidential election, the office also confirmed that civil society organizations “viewed as likely to shape future” U.S. policies — think tanks, research institutes, and the like — had been targets of Russian hacking. These organizations are crucial to the function of democracies but generally are very poorly secured.
Elections get headlines. The minutiae of day-to-day governing decisions rarely do, and few citizens have active roles in this aspect of democratic life. Instead, in healthy democracies, charities, activist groups, community organizations, professional societies, religious groups, trade unions, and other nongovernmental organizations serve as go-betweens, connecting citizens and the government. These organizations create a social capital that smooths the inevitable bumps of democratic government.
Each type of civil society organization functions differently. At a local level, for example, community groups may help solve hard problems (where to locate low-income housing or whether to cut school budgets or funding for services for the elderly, etc.). At a national level, civil society organizations can be a conduit between the people and their representatives by lobbying the government or being a trusted source of information regarding government actions. Civil society organizations are social glue. Destroy trust in these organizations and trust in government also erodes.
Consider what happens when civil society organizations — those viewed as “likely to shape” U.S. policies — are undermined. “Climategate” provides a good example. It was the theft and subsequent leaking online of data from 13 years of research — more than 1,000 emails and 2,000 documents, as well as computer code — from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England. When the theft occurred in 2008, 71 percent of Americans believed global warming was real. In 2009, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a major bill on climate change. Then emails and other data were posted on various internet sites shortly before the Copenhagen summit on climate change, a meeting that was expected to conclude an internationally binding treaty.
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