Hillary Clinton has been in the UK this week, promoting her book What Happened and giving her own analysis of that very question.
While she has enjoyed standing ovations, she has been criticised both here and in the US for reliving the campaign and refusing to take responsibility for her defeat. In particular, some argue that Clinton’s insistence that Vladimir Putin swung the election for Donald Trump is sour grapes.
Indeed, there are many reasons why she lost beyond simply blaming Russia. But while Clinton as a messenger may be controversial, her message goes far beyond despairing at Trump’s Twitter habit, and has crucial implications for the future of democracy itself.
Read more: Russia emails rock Trump
What Happened has an entire chapter dedicated to “fake news and real Russians”. Whether or not you accept Clinton’s conclusion that the Kremlin swung the 77,000 votes in three key swing states that won Trump the election, it makes disturbing reading: cyber attacks, grudges, weaponised information, illegal meetings, murky Trump-Moscow business ties, and an alarming invitation from Trump for Russia to hack and release Clinton’s private emails in July 2016.
Multiple US intelligence agencies, including the CIA and FBI, confirmed that Russia was behind cyber attacks the summer before the election. There are currently three congressional investigations into Moscow’s involvement, while special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into whether the Trump team colluded with Russian agents.
But let’s take the most conservative view, which is that the Russian efforts were not enough to make a material difference to the election results. What happens next time?
We know that the Kremlin attempted to (at the very least) sow seeds of doubt among voters and spread fake news. Bizarre stories, such as the Clintons operating a child-sex exploitation ring from a pizza restaurant, were dressed up as fact by a deluge of new media sites with Russian fingerprints all over them, and disseminated by an army of fake social media accounts.
That in itself is something we have to take seriously. As former FBI director James Comey testified in the Senate: “we’re talking about a foreign government that, using technical intrusion… tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act.”
This is not just a question of who should be US President today. Comey also warned “they’ll be back”. They will – and not just in America.
The US may have been first in the firing line, but from Russia’s funding of far-right parties across Europe (Front National, Alternative fur Deutschland, Austria’s Freedom Party), to the adverts for state-controlled propaganda machine Russia Today (RT) plastered all over the London Underground, Moscow is attempting to exert its influence across the Western world.
Putin’s UK allies tend to be found more on the far left than the far right. Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow frontbenchers are regular guests on RT, despite its role in suppressing free speech in Russia and spreading government disinformation.
Then there are our alt-left news outlets: The Canary, Skwawkbox, Another Angry Voice. As Buzzfeed reported in May, these sites are dedicated to churning out memes and clickbait, promoting Corbyn and attacking his enemies (whether Tories, moderate Labourites, or anyone else), with a lax attitude to fact-checking and opaque donors.
Last month, The Canary ran a hit-piece on BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg, which implied she was speaking at a Conservative party fringe event. She wasn’t, but the fake news piece still went viral.
These sites aren’t direct outlets for the Kremlin. But they – and their alt-right counterparts – could be used as such, even inadvertently. Russian Facebook adverts weaponised hacked data from private emails, repeated false accusations about Clinton, and tried to build a movement against her. What if Russia – or China, or North Korea – aired Theresa May’s personal emails to try to bring her down? What if a more sophisticated attack were enough to make Corbyn Prime Minister next election?
What the US fallout has shown is that the tools are there for a foreign power to undermine citizens’ faith in their leaders and their democracy.
At the end of the Russia chapter, Clinton has some advice for what we can do: keep investigating, improve cyber defences, get tough with foreign autocrats who think they are invincible, and rebuild trust in institutions.
This is by no means easy, but the fate of our elections, and by extension the future of western democracy, depends on it. We might not like what Clinton has to say, but we cannot afford to ignore it.