Skip Navigation

Slamming the Door Shut to Foreign Meddling in America

The failure of our leaders to fully acknowledge just how that weapon was deployed means that we haven’t mustered the political courage to erect new defenses.

June 4, 2018

Cross-posted from The Hill

Last month, Demo­crats on the House Judi­ciary Commit­tee released a batch of some 3,500 Face­book Krem­lin-backed Face­book ads. They yiel­ded further evid­ence of Russi­a’s campaign to sow national discord before (and after) the 2016 elec­tions by exploit­ing weak­nesses in the rules that regu­late online polit­ical advert­ising.

As Cali­for­nia Congress­man and House Intel­li­gence Rank­ing Member Adam Schiff said recently: “There’s no ques­tion that Russia sought to weapon­ize social media plat­forms to drive a wedge between Amer­ic­ans, and in an attempt to sway the 2016 elec­tion.”

And weapon­ize they did. The fail­ure of our lead­ers to fully acknow­ledge just how that weapon was deployed means that we haven’t mustered the polit­ical cour­age to erect new defenses. The ad release reveals that this coordin­ated, planned attack warrants a rethink­ing of the ways we defend our demo­cracy — and it needs to be done in short order.

Russi­a’s use of social media to foment and intensify internal strife in our demo­cracy is the modi­fic­a­tion of an old play­book. In Russian govern­ment classrooms, the tech­niques of disin­forma­tia, kompro­mat, and agit­prop — disin­form­a­tion, comprom­ising mater­ial, and polit­ical propa­ganda — have for decades been taught as weapons of war to weaken an oppon­ent prior to milit­ary action, or as a substi­tute for milit­ary action. These tech­niques allow a weaker power to take on a nation that is milit­ar­ily super­ior.

What’s changed from decades past, though, is that now with just a click — or a like or a share — disin­form­a­tion can spread at an aston­ish­ing pace. We saw it most clearly recently: through a thinly veiled front, Russia reached at least 146 million people with an online army of just 470 accounts. Spies and infilt­rat­ors at the height of the Cold War could only dream of having plat­forms like Face­book or Twit­ter to spread their campaigns of disin­form­a­tion.

In short, these plat­forms present to us a new kind of national secur­ity crisis, one the coun­try appears ill-equipped to navig­ate.

There is no doubt that these tactics are now tools of Russi­a’s offens­ive national secur­ity program. Yet some still doubt that direct foreign attacks on our elect­oral and demo­cratic processes are a national secur­ity threat. But make no mistake: As with the threat posed by Russi­a’s tanks, submar­ines, and missiles, our nation is not secure unless we have an effect­ive defense against these inform­a­tional weapons. And unlike metal weapons, these inform­a­tion oper­a­tions have already been used against us.

Many are will­ing to down­play the risk, saying there’s no evid­ence the Russi­ans changed the outcome of the elec­tions. But that’s beside the point. The meddling of foreign actors in our demo­cracy should be unac­cept­able. The sover­eignty of the Amer­ican people requires us to take steps to protect our polit­ical delib­er­a­tion from foreign manip­u­la­tion. That’s a prin­cipal that’s been enshrined in Amer­ican law for centur­ies, and one we should defend as ensur­ing the stabil­ity and integ­rity of our demo­cracy.

So how do we fight back, not just against Russia but against all those who seek to throw our future elec­tions into a tailspin? There are common-sense reforms on the table that will close doors currently open to foreign powers trying to influ­ence Amer­ican voters.  

To better control the wild west of online advert­ising, we need to bring the rules we’ve created for conven­tional polit­ical advert­ising into the 21st­cen­tury. Online ads should be just as regu­lated as the ads we’re used to seeing on TV. We need more trans­par­ency in who pays for online ads and more regu­lat­ory teeth to ensure the ban on foreign spend­ing is enforced for online campaign­ing.

Congress should follow Cali­for­ni­a’s lead. The state’s recently-enacted Disclose Act improved trans­par­ency for the type of online ads Moscow used to inter­fere in the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Disclos­ure makes it harder for Russian trolls to disguise them­selves as Amer­ic­ans.

Look­ing beyond the inter­net, we need to rein in the scourge of dark money. Groups are currently spend­ing mind-boggling sums on our elec­tions, while taking unlim­ited sums from secret donors. This may provide an easy gate­way for foreign inter­fer­ence. And the concern isn’t just theor­et­ical. The FBI is reportedly invest­ig­at­ing whether a Russian banker with ties to Putin used the NRA to chan­nel foreign dollars into our elec­tions.

And lastly, we need to halt foreign-owned busi­nesses from spend­ing on our elec­tions. Under current law, foreign corpor­a­tions are banned from polit­ical spend­ing, but domestic firms aren’t, even if they’re partially or fully owned by foreign nation­als. Yet invest­ment from abroad is ubiquit­ous. Recent estim­ates of the portion of U.S. corpor­ate stock owned or controlled by foreign­ers range from 25 to 35 percent.

These are simple meas­ures — laid out most recently in a compre­hens­ive report by the Bren­nan Center at NYU Law — that are an exten­sion of laws we already have on the books. And they mirror bipar­tisan legis­la­tion that’s already being intro­duced on Capitol Hill and in state legis­latures.

We, as a nation, can be forgiven for not having rules and regu­la­tions that would have preven­ted this Russian inter­fer­ence. We have no excuse, however, if we let it happen again.

(Image: iStock)

This post is part of the Bren­nan Center’s work to Protect the Vote in the 2018 midterm elec­tions.

Stay on top of the latest news and learn what you can do to make a differ­ence by sign­ing up for Bren­nan Center’s INSIDER news­let­ter.