This editorial originally appeared in the Vancouver Columbian:
Amid the chaos of an impeachment inquiry and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and the president awarding next year’s G-7 summit to his own golf resort, it might have been easy to miss one of the most consequential stories of recent weeks.
A bipartisan report from the Senate Intelligence Committee further detailed the depth of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. According to the report, the Russia-based Internet Research Agency flooded social media with fake news, targeted advertising and divisive content designed to capitalize on societal fractures and ideological divisions throughout the United States. One goal was to help Donald Trump win the election; a broader aim was to wound American democracy and undermine public confidence in our electoral system.
As a column from Roll Call’s Patricia Murphy explains: “The slim, 85-page report reads like a Russian spy novel crossed with a sequel to Orwell’s most dystopian version of the future — right down to an interview with a paid Russian troll who said his experience in 2016, pitting American voters against each other with social media platforms of their own making, was like being ‘a character in the book ‘1984’ by George Orwell — a place where you have to write that white is black and black is white.’ ”
The committee also warned that Russia’s success has emboldened actors in China, North Korea and Iran to study why Americans are so vulnerable to such influence and to embrace the most effective strategies. The takeaway: American democracy is under attack as assuredly as if our enemies were dropping bombs, and a robust response is necessary.
The Senate committee recommends action from the executive branch — a laughable prospect given President Donald Trump’s willful rejection of evidence that outside influence played a role in his election. The suggestion that the White House “reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign influence” is a futile request aimed at a president who habitually spreads falsehoods.
The report also notes that while paid advertisements on social media account for a small fraction of the misinformation, they should be the easiest to address. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said his company needs help from the government in rooting out misleading ads, but at the same time he has defended allowing political actors to spread disinformation in the name of free speech.
Washington and a handful of other states have set an example that should be followed by the federal government in enacting laws requiring transparency in digital political advertising. The failure of Facebook and Google to follow the law led the state of Washington to file suit, resulting in a $455,000 settlement. But earlier this month, the Washington Public Disclosure Commission asserted that Facebook still is not complying with restrictions on political advertising.
The lesson is that legislative measures can be taken to quell disinformation, but gaps will persist. The solution depends on voters. A comprehensive federal policy that includes media literacy campaigns and takes aim at disinformation should be established, but it will remain up to the public to be discerning in how it digests information. In one example, the 2016 presidential campaign saw the widespread sharing of articles from nonexistent “newspapers”; it is not difficult to confirm the existence of a media outlet before clicking the “share” button.
As the 2020 election draws closer, citizens must recognize that our democracy is under attack. And we are the most important line of defense.