Russian Hacking and the Certainty Trough

Views on Russian Hacking: In a Certainty Trough?

I have been amazed by the level of consensus, among politicians, the press and the directors of security agencies, over the origins and motivations behind the Russian hacking of the 2016 presidential election. Seldom are security agencies willing to confirm or deny security allegations, much less promote them*, even when cyber security experts vary in their certainty over the exact details. Of course there are many interpretations of what we are seeing, including speaking arguments that this is simply a responsible press, partisan politics, reactions to the President-elect, or a clear demonstration of what has been called, in a study of a thread of Israeli journalism, ‘patriotic’ journalism.* For example, you can hear journalists and politicians not only demonizing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, the messenger, but also arguing that those who do not accept the consensus are virtually enemies of the state.

One useful theoretical perspective that might help make sense of this unfolding display of consensus is the concept of the ‘certainty trough’, anchored in Donald MacKensie’s research** on missile systems and those who had different levels of certainty about their performance, such as their accuracy in hitting the targets they are designed to strike. He was trying to explain how the generals, for example, could be so certain of their performance, when those most directly involved in developing the missile systems were less certain of how well they will perform. screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-15-21-25

The figure applies MacKenzie’s framework to the hacking case. My contention is that you can see aspects of the certainty trough with respect to accounts of Russian hacking of John Podesta’s emails, which led to damaging revelations about the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Clinton Foundation during the election, such as in leading to the resignation of Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s DNC post. On the one hand, there are security experts, most directly involved in, and knowledgeable about, these issues, with less certainty than the politicians and journalists about how sophisticated these hacks of an email account were, and whether they can attribute clear intentions to an ecology of multiple actors. At the other extreme, the public is the least knowledgeable about cyber security, and likely to have less certainty over what happened (see Figure). Put simply, it is not the case that the more you know the more certain you are about the facts of the case.

The upshot of this possibility is that the journalists and politicians involved in this issue should not demonize those who are less certain about who did what to whom in this case. The critics of the skeptics might well be sitting in the certainty trough.


*ICA (2017), ‘Intellligence Community Assessment, Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections’, Intelligence Community Assessment, 01D, 6 January:

**Avashalom Ginosar, ‘Understanding Patriotic Journalism: Culture, Ideology and Professional Behavior’, see:

***for Donald MacKensie’s work on the certainty trough, see: or his summary of this work in Dutton, W. H. (1999), Society on the Line. (Oxford: OUP), pages 43-46.

The War on Information and the Fifth Estate

Peter Pomerantsev, speaking about the role of the mass media in Russia, coined a valuable phrase, arguing that President Putin was not involved in an information war, as much as a ‘war on information’.* This is certainly seems to me to be an apt characterization of the Russian President’s strategy in debates over Ukraine. His book, entitled Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, was published in 2014 (NY: Public Affairs). It now seems to be rightfully receiving a good deal of media coverage.

You can see the impact of this strategy on many within the Western media, who seem to be unable to say anything definitive about the conflict in the Ukraine – completely at a loss over basic issues, such as whether Russian troops and arms have crossed the border, when continually denied by President Putin and other spokesmen for the regime.

In such wars on information, the sourcing of information by netizens becomes ever more valuable. Rather than confusing the realities on the ground, netizens – the Fifth Estate – become ever more valuable and trusted sources of what is actually happening. Somehow, the elite press have put themselves in a position where claims and counter-claims disable them as they are kept from the actual fields of the conflict. Their responsible journalistic practices seem to have become easy prey in the war on information. For months, the NYT seemed unable to speak definitely about Russian incursions into Ukraine, although recent articles in the NYT increasingly make this observation.

We need networked individuals sourcing their own material, and we need networks of individuals working to synthesize and communicate this collective intelligence to a global community of those interested in making their own sense of conflicts sources of information.

Of course, I would certainly welcome thoughts on how to best cope and respond to this ‘war on information’ and whether it is indeed a useful perspective on the current illustration of being lost in information about Russia and Ukraine.

*Castle, S. ‘A Russian TV Insider Describes a Modern Propaganda Machine’, NYT, 14 Feb 2015: A6. See:


Also, see: