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