Future Tense

What Good Is an Indictment for Online Election Meddling?

The U.S. keeps filing indictments for cyberconflicts, even though nothing ever comes from them.

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announces the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announces the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations for meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Friday, Robert Mueller filed the first charges alleging election interference in his ongoing investigation of the 2016 presidential election. The 37-page indictment alleges that 13 people and three companies in Russia committed illegal acts of aggravated identity theft, conspiring to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and conspiring to defraud the United States. It’s a fascinating read because of the details it reveals about the operations of Russia’s election interference operation. But just like the U.S. government’s other attempts to respond to Russian interference in the election, the charges are a largely symbolic gesture likely to yield no real results or serious consequences for the accused.

Filing indictments seems to have become the United States’ fallback response to international cyberconflicts despite the fact that, time and again, their attempts to charge Chinese military officers or Russian government officials for conducting cyberespionage have met with no success. It’s understandable that the U.S. government is more comfortable resorting to established legal mechanisms than retaliating in kind when it comes to online manipulation and espionage, especially since those are exactly the activities it is trying to condemn and render less acceptable in the international ecosystem. And it’s certainly possible that behind the scenes there are other, covert retaliatory measures that the public doesn’t know about—but even if they are occurring, those activities won’t serve as a deterrent to other would-be election meddlers so long as no one knows about them. So at least from a public-facing standpoint, at a certain point it starts to look like the United States is playing by a completely different, outdated set of rules that can never keep pace with Russia’s willingness to explode conventions.

Russia has always been less cautious than most other countries when it comes to using the internet against its adversaries in new and creative ways. In 2007, Russia was believed to be behind massive denial-of-service attacks directed at Estonia. In 2008, the Russian government coordinated its military strike on Georgia with a series of targeted cyberattacks on Georgian websites and infrastructure. Ten years later, most other nations still haven’t used their cyber capabilities that overtly or aggressively, but, as Mueller’s indictment makes clear, that has not in any way deterred Russia from continuing to wield the internet with impunity.

The actual activities described in the indictment are so trivial as to seem almost laughable. For instance, the Russian nationals named are charged with “posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas” in order to operate “social media pages and groups” that “addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues” and were “designed to attract U.S. audiences.” Among the hashtags they used: #Trump2016, #TrumpTrain, and #Hillary4Prison. They also, allegedly, encouraged Americans to organize political “flash mobs” in support of Trump, as well as purchasing online ads, ordering posters, and sending out press releases for political rallies. One example in the indictment even indicates that the Russians offered American people money to attend rallies and purchase posters and megaphones.

Some of the defendants also visited the U.S. in June 2014 in order to “collect intelligence” for their project of interfering with the U.S. elections, the indictment alleges. But, when applying for their U.S. visas, they told the State Department that they were traveling for personal reasons, without revealing that they actually worked for the Russian Internet Research Agency organization. Another alleged violation: The defendants violated the Federal Election Campaign Act’s provision that foreign nationals may not make any expenditures for electioneering communications. Nor did they register as foreign agents, as required by the Foreign Agent Registration Act.

It’s possible to view this indictment as a show of strength on the part of the U.S., as a clear, public denunciation of the individuals and organizations involved in trying to manipulate the 2016 election. There may be domestic advantages, too. The fanfare surrounding a big public announcement of these charges may boost morale in the U.S. and instill confidence that the situation is being handled. But mostly the indictment just makes the U.S. government sound a little bit incompetent—and very much at a loss for what to do next. After all, did the State Department expect people to declare on their visa applications that they wanted to travel to the U.S. for the purposes of interfering with an election or organizing political rallies or meeting with campaign officials? Is the hope that by filing this indictment—which is highly unlikely to result in any arrests or trials, because Russia almost certainly will not extradite anyone named in the indictment—other people who might consider doing something similar will somehow be deterred from creating social media accounts under false U.S. personas? That they will feel compelled to register as foreign agents with the U.S. government for fear of otherwise facing a toothless indictment?

If anything, the full threat articulated by the indictment at would-be Russia copycats seems to be: We will figure out what you posted on Twitter, what hashtags you used, what advertisements you paid for, what company you worked for, what you said on your visa application, and we will name you and describe your actions for all the world to see. Perhaps the only strength the United States demonstrates through this indictment is in its thorough investigation of what, specifically, the defendants did—what they wrote online, what their work performance reviews said (e.g., “low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton”), which email addresses they used, which Facebook groups and Twitter handles they controlled, which rallies they promoted. Figuring all of that out required some serious and substantial investigation and perhaps the thoroughness of that investigation and the threat of losing the privilege of traveling to the U.S. and its ally countries will, in fact, scare off some people who might be tempted to interfere with U.S. elections in similar ways.

The problem is that the United States, despite its investigatory abilities, seems deeply uncertain about what to do with all the information it has collected. Filing an indictment to air these details to the public is interesting for the rest of us, but it’s not a clear show of force directed at anyone involved. Instead, it feels like the desperate floundering of a government unsure what to do and unwilling to set a potentially dangerous precedent by engaging with Russia on its own terms. Similarly, the Obama administration’s initial response to the 2016 election interference—expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S.—seemed strangely out-of-touch with the online nature of the conflict, the act of a country still fighting by Cold War rules instead of adapting to the changing terms of cyberconflict.

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Josephine Wolff is an assistant professor of public policy and computing security at Rochester Institute of Technology and a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.