A bipartisan Senate investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election released today definitively implicates the country in online operations designed specifically to get then-candidate Donald Trump elected. The tactics used were “overtly and almost invariably supportive” of his campaign, even to the detriment of other Republicans. The report recommends major changes to how disinformation and election interference are handled in this country.
The bulk of the report, volume 2 of the Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian interference (the first arrived in July), focuses on the specifics of the country’s use of social media and other online channels to affect the election. (You can read the full report at the bottom of this post.)
“This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government’s covert support of Russia’s favored candidate in the U.S. presidential election,” the report reads at the outset. So much is already known, but the report goes into great detail on the exact means.
More importantly, it officially characterizes what had in many ways only been observed by other parties or alluded to: that “Russia’s favored candidate” was Trump from the beginning and that operations were undertaken specifically to get him and no one else elected.
Another point the report makes, which others had noted before, is that black Americans were of particular interest to the Russian agents.
“No single group of Americans was targeted by IRA information operatives more than African-Americans. By far, race and related issues were the preferred target of the information warfare campaign designed to divide the country in 2016,” the report states. Race issues are certainly always top of mind for many in this country, and clearly Russia perceived that as an opportunity.
While a perusal of our past articles on the topic will give an idea of the interference itself, what is new here is a set of recommendations on how to prevent the 2016 calamity from occurring again next year. Here are the major ones:
“Examine legislative approaches to ensuring Americans know the sources of online political advertisements.”
Political ads in most media are required by law to disclose who paid for them. The same is not true online, and while companies like Facebook are taking steps toward transparency, it seems odd that a private company last seen being an unwitting accomplice to foreign election interference should be the vanguard of that change. Perhaps, the committee suggests, we should pass a law.
“Congress should continue to examine the full panoply of issues surrounding social media.”
This is a frustratingly vague recommendation, and its wording suggests Congress is already examining this “panoply.” But it is not specific because there is so much to say. “Privacy rules, identity validation, transparency in how data is collected and used, and monitoring for inauthentic or malign content” are among the several things that deserve continued attention. Between the lines is to be read that Congress is not going to let go of these issues any time soon if the Intel Committee has anything to do with it.
“Reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election.”
This recommendation to the Executive seems unlikely to find much purchase, since this administration has been careful to play down the role of Russian and other interference in the election that put them in power. It is hard to imagine any administration doing otherwise, to be honest. But this recommendation may very well filter down to the innumerable agencies and offices that perform all kinds of work under the umbrella of the Executive, and there is only so much that the White House can suppress. If there is, as we all understand there to be, a major risk of foreign interference in the 2020 election, the Executive should acknowledge that publicly or find itself accused of complicity.
“Building media literacy from an early age would help build long-term resilience to foreign manipulation of our democracy.”
It is worth quoting this in full:
…Disinformation in the long-term will ultimately need to be tackled by an informed and discerning population of citizens who are both alert to the threat and armed with the critical thinking skills necessary to protect against malicious influence. A public initiative-propelled by federal funding but led in large part by state and local education institutions-focused on building media literacy from an early age would help build long-term resilience to foreign manipulation of our democracy.
It’s hardly realistic to expect an education campaign to have any effect next year, which is why this is a “long-term” approach to taking on disinformation. But how can federal education guidelines or campaigns be taken seriously when the government is itself deeply invested in counterfactual narratives regarding things like climate change? Media literacy is important, but the feds need to learn their own lessons before they can teach them.
“Stand up an interagency task force to continually monitor and assess foreign country’s use of social media platforms for democratic interference.”
Another recommendation to the Executive, this one is half practical and half CYA. A task force is the lip service of the federal government, but even so they have a habit of documenting things that others would rather were swept under the rug. No one would take the proposed “deterrence frameworks” seriously, but they make great ammo for political battles after the fact. If the task force warned of X six months before X caused Y, the politicians who appear to have taken X seriously at the time score valuable politics points.
“Develop a clear plan for notifying candidates, parties, or others associated with elections when those individuals or groups have been the victim of a foreign country’s use of social media platforms to interfere in an election.”
This kind of thing — the knowledge that there’s a hacking collective in Brazil trying to take down Pete Buttigieg or something — should be shared in a structured fashion. This is as much to benefit the target as it is to punish those who would withhold that information.
Furthermore, as Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) adds in notes at the end of the report, it is not enough to simply say that there were attempts at subversion — the intelligence community must share their “assessment of the goals and intent” of those attempts.
In other words, if we knew in 2016 what we know now, it would be required that the government in some way disclose not only that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was being targeted, but that it was being targeted with the specific goal of getting Donald Trump elected.
Wyden also had some choice words for the social media and tech community:
Until Facebook, Google, and Twitter have developed effective defenses to ensure that their micro-targeting systems cannot be exploited by foreign governments to influence American elections, these companies must put the integrity of American democracy over their profits.
Congress should pass legislation that addresses this concern in three respects. First, the Federal Trade Commission must be given the power to set baseline data security and privacy rules for companies that store or share Americans’ data, as well as the authority and resources to fine companies that violate.those rules, Second; companies should be obligated to disclose how consumer information is collected and shared and provide consumers the names of every individual or institution with whom their data has been shared. Third, consumers must be given the ability to easily opt out of commercial data sharing.
You can read the full report below.