How to Stop Russian Election Meddling
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The U.S. is one of 27 countries that have faced Russian election meddling, and the others offer strategies for how to fight back.
By Andrew Hirschfeld
Like most voters, Cody Gertz of Brooklyn just wants to know what’s going on. He scrolls through the news, taking care to look at different outlets and across social media platforms. But he’s well aware that not all the information he’s seeing will be legitimate.
Some of that is just garden-variety partisanship. But he’s also alert to the possibility that it’s intentional disinformation emanating from a foreign power. “Following politics can be exhausting, and the Russian interference can make that much more challenging,” says Gertz. “There’s just so much out there. It’s hard to keep up sometimes.”
Just weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that Russian disinformation campaigns were working to support the campaigns of both Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Donald Trump, in a bid to sow division among voters in the already emotionally trying state of American politics. Both Sanders and Trump may have some of the most passionate supporters in contemporary politics — a strength for their campaigns. The blind loyalty is also a fault that Russian disinformation agents largely exploit. (Last week, a Trump administration intelligence official reportedly told key members of Congress that intelligence agencies do not yet have evidence that Russia is acting on behalf of a specific candidate — it’s merely seeking to divide Americans.)
But while an NPR poll in January found that 1 in 6 Americans think foreign interference is the biggest threat to U.S. elections, some are ignoring a fact that could hugely help efforts to fight back.
The U.S. is just one of 27 countries across Europe and North America victimized by Russian political meddling since 2004.
That’s according to research undertaken by the German Marshall Fund. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Russia is stumping for specific candidates who may advance its goals — it’s often mostly about sowing division, confusion and mistrust.
“As in 2016, the U.S. is ripe for a catalytic disinformation campaign because of the spread-spectrum politics, which are weighted to the right and left,” says Paul Bracken, a professor of management and political science at Yale University. “It’s ‘catalytic,’ just like in high school chemistry. A very small dose of another chemical greatly accelerates the reactions that are already underway of their own accord. It’s very effective, and economic too.”
“[Putin] won’t stop working to divide Americans — we have to keep exposing his effort for what it is: political warfare,” Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a Republican, said in a statement in October 2018.
But in fact, Russia’s problem appears to be less about the United States than some have argued. And examples from those 26 other countries affected by Russian interference could serve as a roadmap — or at least a tip sheet — for those hoping to minimize foreign disinformation in 2020.
Take France. In 2017, Emmanuel Macron won the presidency despite a massive data leak of thousands of campaign emails at the 11th hour. The data dump, which purported to show financial crimes by the campaign, was linked to groups that work with Russian military intelligence. It looked a lot like Russia’s alleged hack of the Democratic National Committee in the 2016 U.S. election — but the legally mandated two-day media blackout that takes place before French elections managed to contain the fallout of the leak, which is now thought to have been mundane campaign emails mixed with fake documents. Since then, Macron has called for the creation of a European agency specifically to protect democracies against such cyberattacks and manipulation, bringing countries together to protect each other against a common threat.
So far, no such agency has formed. But internally, France took further precautions, passing a law that clearly defined “fake news” and gave authorities the power to remove it from social media, as well as a process to block false reporting if it’s been approved by a judge. Another new law requires financial transparency on sponsored posts, and another allows the revocation of broadcasting rights for channels that knowingly perpetuate propaganda created by a foreign state.
Finland and Sweden, meanwhile, took similar steps, starting national programs to educate young people to read the news critically and determine fake stories from real ones. As of 2017, all Swedish high school students have to take a mandated news literacy program. Finland ranks as the most news-literate country in Europe, according to a joint report from the European Policy Institute and the Open Society Institute.
Meanwhile, since the 2016 election, the U.S. has passed several pieces of legislation including the Intel Authorization Act, which puts systems in place to monitor active-measure campaigns and illicit financial transactions, and the 2017 Intelligence Authorization Act, which called on Trump to establish an interagency committee to counter Russian active measures. That bill was signed into law in May 2017. Private companies are taking part as well: Instagram and Facebook have both reportedly removed accounts aimed at sowing division in American elections.
But other pieces of legislation have been blocked in the U.S., like those mandating postelection audits, modernizing voting equipment and requiring campaigns to report any offers of illegal foreign assistance. That may be a function of Trump’s influence on U.S. politics — he’s urged Russian interference against political opponents in the past, and in 2019 said during a TV interview that if Russian operatives offered dirt on a rival, “it’s not interference; they have information — I think I’d take it.”
However, it’s not just Trump’s campaign that doesn’t mind a little election interference. According to researcher Dov Levin, an expert on such meddling, Russia interfered in three elections of three separate countries between 1990 and 2000. The U.S., for its part, interfered in 18 elections in 12 countries.
- Andrew Hirschfeld, OZY AuthorContact Andrew Hirschfeld