The fact of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is no longer in doubt. The steady drip of revelations has confirmed intense efforts to affect the outcome of that vote. The evidence also makes clear that the Russian program was much different from that which was originally anticipated by experts and reveals a keen understanding of U.S. political dynamics and an exceptionally sophisticated campaign by Russian hackers and intelligence agents to affect the results. To think that only the United States is the object of Russian interest is a dangerous assumption, one belied by the facts. Other governments must prepare for this eventuality and begin to think about ways to both defend against and deter future meddling.
Initial concerns of Russian involvement focused on hacking the Democratic National Committee to release embarrassing emails and tampering with voter rolls and voting machines that would directly impact the voting process. While the first charge is still being debated, there is little evidence that the manipulations of records or machines occurred. Instead, and more insidiously, it now looks as if Russia attempted to influence voters’ decisions about how to vote. The proof is Facebook’s belated acknowledgement — after denying any proof — that Russian entities had purchased political ads during the election campaign.
One focus of interest is the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” where hackers created fake social media accounts to spread propaganda. Facebook has found 470 fake pages and accounts affiliated with IRA that spent about $150,000 to purchase 5,000 ads between June 2015 and May 2017. The ads did not mention the election or specific candidates but addressed “divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum,” explained one Facebook official. (Facebook has not provided more details.)
Given that election campaigns spent $1.4 billion in 2016 on digital political ads, $150,000 is a trivial amount. That is no reason to be sanguine. IRA is just one troll farm that has been identified; there could be others — in fact, IRA has closed shop and a second organization has opened in the same office with the same owner. Second, and more importantly, the 2016 election was determined by a razor-slim margin — just tens of thousands of votes — and the ability to accurately target voters that might be susceptible to such manipulation is the most effective way to influence an outcome.
But if the Russian effort to influence the election outcome is no longer subject to question, there remains the critical question of whether there was collusion with the Trump campaign. There were many meetings between Trump campaign staff and surrogates and Russian representatives, official and otherwise, and in at least one case — that of the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr. — an intent to collude was plain. He denies, however, that anything came of the meeting.
Brad Parscale, digital director of the Trump campaign, insists that he is “unaware of any Russian involvement in the digital and data operations of the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.” Experts note that key information about potentially susceptible voters is not hard to acquire and the two would not have to work together to achieve the results that have been observed.
These revelations pose fundamental questions about how democracies can protect the integrity of their elections — and their democracy. First, it is vital to recognize the way that social media platforms have transformed the way that individuals get news and information. As mainstream media outlets decline in significance, it is critical — and harder — to ensure that alternative sources are not dominated by what is, without question, “fake news”: after all, some of the stories are completely fabricated. Facebook has implemented measures to prevent future abuse, making it harder to both set up fake accounts and to redirect traffic to inauthentic pages. But the volume, scale and pace of activity makes it difficult, if not impossible, for digital platforms to keep up.
Second, there needs to be greater attention to and sensitivity about interference in national election campaigns. The inclination to dismiss such attempts as either too brazen or too hard to pull off is wrong. Moscow has shown no hesitation about interfering in the most fundamental sovereign decisions of other nations. In addition to meddling in the U.S. election, Russia has tried to influence ballots and politics in states from the Baltics to Ukraine. If Russia insists on taking active measures to subvert the political systems of other countries, it must face consequences. It is time for concerned governments to face this reality and respond accordingly.