Cyberwarfare and the Russian Weaponisation of Information in the 2016 US Elections

Cyberwarfare and the Russian Weaponisation of Information in the 2016 US Electio


Whilst much has been written about the use of internet-based viruses as a cyberwarfare weapon to inflict damage on the infrastructure of other countries, one area that has not been examined concerns the manipulation of information to ferment disunity in other countries as an act of political subversion. Such a form of cyberwarfare poses particular challenges due to the difficulty of attributing such weaponisation of information. Furthermore, given that the weaponisation of information does not involve the use of military force, the target of such an action is faced with the difficulty of formulating an appropriate response. Russia’s use of its intelligence apparatus to hack the Democratic campaign in the US 2016 Presidential Elections reflected the weaponisation of information itself. Seeking to tilt the election in favour of Donald Trump, Russian weaponisation of information against the US took the form of a three-pronged strategy that had the effect of, firstly, sowing division within the Democratic Party; secondly, damaging the credibility of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for President; and thirdly, arousing far-right sentiments to convince conservative voters in swing-states to support Trump’s Republican candidacy. This paper will conclude by examining how democracies may strengthen their political institutions against the application of cyberspace to undertake the weaponisation of information as an act of political subversion.

Policy recommendations

  • Russia’s use of cyberspace to weaponize information marked an act of political subversion against the democratic institutions of the United States.
  • Both the transatlantic alliance, as well as other democracies, must strengthen their defenses against externally-directed weaponisation of information on cyberspace.
  • Strengthening cyber-security and firewalls offer only the first line of defence against externally-directed weaponization of information via cyberspace by a skilled cyberwarfare adversary.
  • Democratic political institutions must be empowered to maintain constitutional oversight to follow electronic trails that indicate evidence of externally-directed cyber-political subversion.
  • Political parties and other democratic institutions must demonstrate transparency and accountability to their constituents to prevent foreign entities from manipulating internal political documents in a bid to skew election results.
  • Mainstream media voices must maintain an active and socially responsible role in providing a fair and objective newsfeed that challenges fringe political perspectives and conspiracy theories.




Photo Credit: U.S. Consulate General Barcelona Via Flicker (CC BY-ND 2.0)