Meanwhile, intelligence officials tell Sen. Bernie Sanders, the leading candidate to unseat the president, that Russian bots have infiltrated his online army to sow discord in the Democratic Party.
…Not sure what to believe? Bingo. This fever of mistrust is the desired symptom of a powerful virus — a confidence-sapping worm of mutual suspicion — that Russia has planted in the operating system of American democracy. At little cost and with surprising ease, Vladimir Putin and his government have exploited partisanship and social media to serve Russia’s long-term goal of weakening the West by encouraging disorder and disunity. Already, eight months before Election Day, the virus is spreading virtually unchecked, because the very existence of a Russian chaos project has itself become a partisan wedge.
…Seizing opportunities on the lawless frontiers of social media, the Russian leader has stoked division, spread disinformation, fanned conspiracy theories and generally mind-gamed the American system.
…It’s ironic that Americans of all political stripes have contributed to Putin’s success — by failing to understand what he wants and why he wants it.
…A unified United States, pursuing a bipartisan, pro-democracy foreign policy is Putin’s biggest fear. So, he has taken the risk of creating an operation specifically to sow discord through social media. Putin’s computer hackers look for any internal divisions and tensions that tend to erode American unity or discredit American leadership. Though he clearly favored Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, Putin doesn’t generally favor one point of view over another; he supports whichever candidates are most divisive and amplifies whatever arguments are most bitter.
…So, too, history will eventually confirm the foundational fact of Putin’s deliberate hacking of the West. “The Russian Government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” the Mueller report concluded. As spelled out in a detailed federal indictment of the Internet Research Agency, Russian agents employed by a Putin associate began in 2014 to sow inflammatory lies and truly fake news on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Their strategy was simple enough: Find divisive wedge issues and try to hammer the wedge deeper.
Russian trolls and computer “bots” spread phony reports of a Muslim terrorist attack in Louisiana. They stoked racial tensions after controversial police shootings. They touted a nonexistent outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta and fanned baseless rumors of Ku Klux Klansmen loose on a Missouri college campus. Such seemingly scattershot efforts in fact were aimed precisely: anything likely to divide Americans from each other, or divide Americans from the world, was a candidate for amplification. Shake, stir and repeat.
Speculating about Putin’s motivations and referring to these thoughts as if they were facts is a wee bit much there, Drehle…