FEAR written on paper

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What exactly does it mean to hack an election? Because countless headlines last week used variations of that phrase, such as:

  • USA Today: “Obama threatens retaliation against Russia for election hacking”
  • The New York Times: “Obama Strikes Back at Russia for Election Hacking”
  • Newsweek: “U.S. to Announce Response to Russian Election Hacking”

And so on and so forth. Now maybe “election hacking” is just a convenient turn of phrase, good for eye-grabbing headlines. But in most of the mainstream reporting over the past few weeks, it sure seems like the impression you’re meant to take away is that Russia may have actually “hacked” the electoral process itself in some way. If you go by headlines alone, you’d think Russians actually hacked voting machines or something similarly nefarious.

Which is probably exactly what many of these outlets intend. As the media’s obsession with invalidating the Electoral College showed after Trump’s victory, anything that appears to undermine the legitimacy of his election will top the news for the foreseeable future.

Now, all this is not to say that it’s okay if Russia did in fact commission the DNC hack and the subsequent distribution of those private files and emails. That’s stealing; it’s a crime, and I certainly wouldn’t want to minimize or condone that.

However, it still hasn’t been established beyond a reasonable doubt (at least to the public) that Russia was behind that much. The detailed, 13-page brief released by the FBI and DHS hasn’t convinced many cybersecurity experts that Russia was behind the DNC hack.

Even if Russia were behind the hack, or at least the Russian government encouraged or sponsored it (and no one would be surprised about that), merely leaking true facts about Hillary and the DNC certainly doesn’t constitute “hacking the election.” Thus far, no one has made a convincing case that the leaks decisively impacted the final outcome. And if you think about it, how could they have?

Between the slow drip of new emails from the investigations into Hillary’s private server and the long, sordid trail of scandals that have followed both her and Bill, there’s a reason Hillary’s “trustworthiness” polled abysmally low well before the DNC leaks ever came out. As my colleague Logan Albright pointed out weeks ago, ascribing Trump’s victory to Russia appears to be giving the Russians way too much credit — and the voters far too little.

There are plenty of reasons to loathe Vladimir Putin without giving him credit for an election he didn’t rig.

Not only is the media’s continual use of “Russian election hacking” misleading, but it’s also dangerous. Such rhetoric stokes the fires for aggressive hawks like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. (F, 32%) and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. (F, 30%), who actually called Russia’s involvement “an act of war.”

This parallels increasingly belligerent rhetoric from other leaders, including Hillary Clinton, who suggested during her campaign that military force might be an appropriate response to cyber attacks from Russia and China.

Government-sponsored hackers taking down power grids or defense systems, where there is clear damage and danger to American citizens as a result, could warrant such extreme rhetoric. A not-yet-proven hack that merely released embarrassing communications certainly does not, even if the intent was to affect popular opinion around an election.

There are plenty of reasons to loathe Vladimir Putin without giving him credit for an election he didn’t rig.

Josh Withrow is an Associate Editor for Conservative Review and Director of Public Policy at Free the People. You can follow him on Twitter at @jgwithrow.