The United States may not be the only target of Vladimir Putin’s social-media warfare, but many Americans do seem particularly vulnerable to Russian agents’ tricks.
Consider Russian operatives’ malicious use of social-media platforms to upend our democracy and influence the 2016 election, outlined in a Senate Intelligence Committee report released last week. Despite social-media companies’ efforts to stop the malicious activities, researchers say the Russian interference is ongoing. It would be naive to think Russia is the only state attempting to destabilize American society using tweets and posts.
According to the report, the St. Petersburg-based internet Research Agency flooded social media with fake news, divisive content and targeted advertising that extended far beyond promoting absurd fantasies about Trump’s beneficence and alleged evils of Democratic contender Hillary Clinton. The lies left verified news accounts in the dust — with intentionally false articles outperforming top stories from 19 major news outlets on Facebook in the final months leading up to the 2016 election, according to the report.
But tipping the outcome in favor of President Donald Trump was only one goal, the report concluded. More broadly, the foreign agents sought to capitalize on societal fractures and deep ideological divisions to undermine Americans’ confidence in the democratic process.
It is difficult to say which is more outrageous: the attack or the fact that it seems to be working.
Then again, our nation’s political discourse in recent years has primed us for this moment. Small wonder that an electorate, so accustomed to politicians dehumanizing dissenters and demonizing opponents, would willingly enlist in such battles, even if the lines were drawn and outrage stoked at the behest of a smug despot on another continent. The question is, how do we back away from this ledge?
The status quo cannot be allowed to continue. But many of the intelligence committee’s recommendations require action from the executive branch — an unworkable prospect, given the current administration’s outright disdain for the truth. The committee’s suggestion, for example, that the White House “reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election,” is laughable. Other recommendations, including urging the executive to form a task force to monitor and assess foreign agents’ use of social media, to notify candidates and elections officials of social-media attempts to interfere with elections and develop a framework for deterrence, will likewise have to wait for another day.
Similarly anemic are recommendations that media establish guidelines for using social media as sources for news accounts — a long-standing practice of reputable news organizations.
That does not mean that nothing can be done.
Although, as the report notes, paid advertisements represent only a small fraction of the problem, they also may be the easiest to address. Washington is among a handful of states that have enacted laws requiring transparency in digital political advertising. Federal law should follow suit, as intelligence committee members recommend.
Social-media companies must accelerate efforts to identify and eliminate malicious users. Although the companies cooperated with the Senate investigation, even they themselves do not know the full extent to which their platforms have been twisted and manipulated into tools of information warfare, according to the intelligence committee’s report.
A long-term, cohesive, federal-level plan to protect democracy will need to be crafted, including media literacy. Here, the United States can take cues from other countries that have proved more impervious to similar attacks.
This battle is not over. It is one we can ill afford to lose.