Part of the reason for Donald Trump’s triumph in the US election was that, as he would say, his cyber was the strongest. In the first social media election, Trump rallied a world’s worth of hackers and extreme digital natives to his side. If he can keep that anarchic crowd on board, he’ll not only have the world’s best cybersecurity, he’ll have a cyber army.
All human relationships rely on context. You say different things, to different people, in different ways; that doesn’t mean you’re lying. But WikiLeaks ripped the context out of the Hillary Clinton campaign, splaying it open like a vivisector, and destroying it in the minds of the press and America. Her own IT guys, meanwhile, clearly led her so wrong that she ended up in the arms of the FBI. And she had nothing to counter the relentless flow of pro-Trump, shareable stories on Facebook.
It’s notable that whoever feeds WikiLeaks only attacked Clinton, even while Trump’s own cybersecurity isn’t great. WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange may or may not back Trump, but there’s nothing to stop someone sending leaks somewhere else. But nobody successfully hacked Trump, and nobody leaked anything but a few pages of old paper tax records during the Trump campaign. The black-hat hacker world, made of people who can truly crack systems and extract secrets, appeared to be unanimously on Trump’s side.
That includes the rank-and-file of federal law enforcement, as an FBI Twitter account unleashed a Tweetflood right before the election presenting positive things about Trump’s father and casting suspicion on the Clintons. The FBI blamed a website glitch, but of course, the FBI’s website is run by humans, who decided to fix that glitch and release those tweets when they did.
Trump was also the Reddit candidate, the 4chan candidate, and for that matter the “Macedonian shitposter” candidate. Whatever you think of those guys politically, their cyber is strong. They know how to generate cultural memes and manipulate Facebook’s algorithms to create maximum shareability. Where the lack of Trump leaks shows that his team had cybersecurity, his shitposter army showed that he has not just an army, but a bonafide Second Amendment well-organized militia on his side. The cyber campaign of 2016 was an entirely one-sided battle.
Trump’s cyber crossed borders and had no respect for rules. Trump’s cyber wore black hats and focused on winning. And—here’s the key—Trump’s cyber wasn’t ordered by him. They were inspired. That meant they could go well beyond what a directly organized crew could do.
And the next phase may already be underway. Security writer Brian Krebs reports that hackers are going hard at the sorts of non-governmental organizations that have had anti–Trump stances (for instance, by spoofing fake messages from the Clinton Foundation), setting the stage for the idea that anyone who opposes the President could have all of their laundry aired publicly at any time.
Hillary Clinton had nothing like these followers. She and her supporters played neither offense nor defense. Hackers for Hillary? She apparently just had a bunch of staffers who didn’t know how not to get spear-phished. Where Trump attracted supporters out in the open with super-viral memes, Hillary’s loyalists hid on secret Facebook groups where they spoke only to each other. And most probably, if she’d found some black-hat hackers to work for her, she’d have been indicted.
How Do You Keep the Nihilists?
The big question now for Trump is how to turn a ragged, angry, and probably nihilistic band of Loki-worshipers, possibly along with some Russian spies, to his advantage as a leader.
Taking a quick look at 4chan, you’ll see that much of the crew there loves Trump either because they’re racists, misogynists, chaos lovers, or because they’re just angry and wanted to blow up the existing political system. To keep them on board, Trump will have to maintain his anti-establishment, alt-right appeal, which means dire things for minorities in this country. Trump may also now be locked into an alliance with Russia, who have shown their hacking and disinformation capabilities to be far beyond ours.
Otherwise, the forces which helped bring him to power may turn against him purely out of a love of chaos. But if he can keep his personal hold over them—if he can keep them loving “Daddy”—he has the strongest cyber army the world has ever known, ready to unleash against his enemies foreign and domestic.
Anti-Trump forces need to think hard about the role cybersecurity and viral content played in this election. If they’re ever going to win again, they need to communicate using far more hardened means than Hillary Clinton’s campaign did, and find people willing to play dirtier.