One year after the 2016 presidential election, more facts about Russia’s efforts to undermine American democracy are finally beginning to emerge. The recent congressional hearings on the Russian government’s use of tech platforms to interfere in U.S. politics leave no doubt that these tools have been weaponized and pointed at Americans. From fake personas to fake organizations, to political advertisements, to recruitment of real people to film YouTube videos for Russian entities, to organizing real-life protests using social media platforms, the Kremlin has sought to weaken the fabric of American society and undermine the pillars of its democracy.
As the hearings revealed, the U.S. government and tech companies are still trying to understand the full scope of activity that took place on social media. As Sen. Mark Warner, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, said of Russian purchased content, “These ads are just the tip of a very large iceberg.” There is every reason to believe that estimates of the number of Americans who came into contact with this material will continue to grow as the companies gather more information on other troll farms and networks that were likely part of this effort.
The full impact of these Russian influence efforts on the electorate remains unknown. But it’s clear that the Russian government made a concerted attempt to interfere with Americans’ most precious rights, an act so detrimental to the foundations of democracy that Alexander Hamilton warned about it in the Federalist Papers. And it’s clear that the Russians learned much from their use of social media platforms and other attempts to probe the U.S. voting system. We must assume that they will try to do even more in 2018 and 2020 if the United States lets them.
Moreover, as several members of Congress have underscored, this is not just about the past — nor is it just about elections. Russian-government information operations continue to target Americans today. The Hamilton 68 dashboard, which tracks content being promoted by Kremlin-oriented social media accounts, has shown the promotion of content that plays to divisions in American society, fans the flame of extremism, and targets individuals believed to be at odds with Russia’s interests.
And while much of the discussion in the hearings was on “fake news,” much of the content these networks amplify is not originated by Russian-linked sources or entirely false. Rather, these networks often amplify messages or stories emanating from other sources that advance Russia’s interests. They are sophisticated enough that when stories are in the news that are unfavorable to the Kremlin, these networks promote alternative content that seeks to “dismiss, distract, distort, and dismay.” For instance, following the indictment of former Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, the networks amplified content about Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta’s ties to Russian-linked oligarchs in a classic attempt to muddy the waters.
Even as we struggle to understand and address the scope of Russia’s information operations, it’s important to remember that this is only one of the tools the Kremlin continues to use to undermine democracy. The Kremlin’s toolkit combines information operations with cyberattacks, money laundering, economic coercion, and support for extremist groups. These tools are often deployed in concert to achieve the Putin regime’s goal: a weakened, divided, and distracted America.
For instance, in 2016 the Kremlin’s actions included the release of weaponized information stolen from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta’s emails. They also included the cyber-probing of states’ internet-facing election systems, which notably include voter rolls, and the apparent dangling of fake documents to U.S. agencies.
Russia and other foreign actors exploit loopholes on a daily basis to influence Americans’ political discourse. Well-known Washington lobbyists can earn millions of dollars annually from foreign government-linked individuals without registering as a foreign agent until they become national figures and face broader scrutiny. Russia has also cultivated relationships with groups on both the left and the right of the U.S. political spectrum, including the National Rifle Association and anti-fracking groups.
This Russian playbook is not new and was deployed against the United States and European allies during the Cold War. What has changed are the tools used to employ these tactics, and a weakened Kremlin’s interest in chaos over stability. Technology has now brought active measures directly to the screens of millions of Americans at relatively little cost. With the decline of traditional media and Americans’ increasing reliance on social media for news and information, the Kremlin has found new and powerful tools to promote chaos.
Despite this clear threat to American democracy, and the unanimous assessment of the intelligence community that Russia interfered in the election in an operation ordered by Vladimir Putin, real discussion of how to halt these activities and prevent them in the future is only beginning now. This is partly driven by a continued partisan divide on the issue — which is being fueled by the Kremlin’s ongoing influence efforts and Putin’s own denials to President Donald Trump. Trump’s repeated statements casting doubt on his own intelligence community’s assessment and the unwillingness of many Republican leaders to defend the truth continue to fan these partisan flames. Allowing Russian interference to become a partisan issue plays right into Russia’s hands and achieves Putin’s goals.
This is not about relitigating who won the election. Trump is the president. This is about defending American democracy from attacks by foreign enemies.
With the U.S. midterm elections fast approaching, the threat is as urgent as ever. The U.S. government, the private sector, and civil society need to begin immediately to develop and put strategies in place to defend against, deter, and raise the costs of any attempts to undermine American democracy. And that means asking some difficult questions.
First, how did the government and social media companies miss the exploitation of these platforms by a foreign government intent on undermining American democracy, and what are these companies doing to make sure it does not happen again? Technology has empowered individual citizens, fueled revolutions against authoritarian regimes, and provided access to information and tools that has increased the quality of life for Americans. Yet Americans’ increasing reliance on technology to conduct political discourse has a dark side that this increasingly social media-addled society has failed to grasp. The unilateral steps announced in recent weeks by social media companies are a good first step, but do not go far enough to address the fundamental vulnerabilities of many of these platforms.
Tech companies need to work with national security experts to better understand the potential vulnerabilities of their platforms, especially as technology evolves through the use of artificial intelligence, in which countries like Russia and China are investing heavily. Social media companies must understand that having an honest public conversation and taking smart steps now to regulate these technologies will help head off government overreach in response as the problem gets worse. This should include ensuring that online political advertising is subject to the same rules as advertising on other mediums. In addition, significant effort needs to be put into teaching media literacy to children and young people who have never learned to distinguish trusted news from information with an agenda.
And while the focus is now on social media, journalists and reporters for more traditional media outlets need to examine their role in a disinformation environment. Traditional media reported eagerly on weaponized information stolen from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta by Russia and released for the purpose of interfering in the Presidential election, and often did so without providing readers context on the agenda behind the leaks or stopping to verify the information. And Russian-generated disinformation has been laundered through the information ecosystem to make its way to mainstream outlets, as we saw with the conspiracy theories about Seth Rich’s death. Traditional media outlets have a responsibility to provide Americans with the best information possible and prevent themselves from being used as a microphone for Kremlin propaganda.
The response must go beyond just information operations. The U.S. elections system is decentralized and not for the most part subject to federal requirements. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security took months to notify a number of states that their elections infrastructure was probed by the Russians in 2016, and even then provided confusing and unclear information. How can the federal government ensure the sanctity of future elections when many states have become increasingly reliant on electronic voting machines and voter rolls that may have now been compromised? We also need to ensure that the U.S. and international financial system cannot be exploited by Kremlin cronies to funnel money to groups and individuals in the United States to exploit divisions and interfere in American politics.
The foreign interference problem will never be eliminated entirely, but the current approach in many ways is like leaving the front door of a house unlocked and open after the house has already been robbed.
The effort to defend against foreign interference starts with strengthening the pillars of American democracy. Americans are not increasingly at odds solely because of Russia. The Kremlin is exploiting fault lines and divisions that have existed for some time in many cases. Americans need to learn how to conduct civil discourse even when they disagree about policies. Given the president’s proclivities, more leadership on this front needs to come from members of Congress and leaders at the state and local level.
Putin is trying to weaken the United States as a country by undermining its core strength — and Americans are letting him do so with next to no resistance. Congressional hearings on one aspect of the problem are a good first step, but the United States has a long way to go before its democracy is secure. It is long past time to learn the lessons of 2016 to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and to defend American institutions against ongoing efforts to weaken them. Congress, the administration, the tech companies, the media, and all Americans, regardless of political affiliation, must begin to do their part to tackle the foreign interference problem.
Laura Rosenberger is Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She served as foreign policy advisor to Hillary Clinton on her 2016 presidential campaign. Jamie Fly is Co-Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and Senior Fellow and Director of the Future of Geopolitics and Asia programs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He served as foreign policy advisor to Senator Marco Rubio, including during his 2016 presidential campaign.