Russia’s attack on our democracy was clearly identified in a 2017 intelligence report that stated: “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect [Donald] Trump.”
Now, two new reports give more context to the extent of those efforts. Among the key findings in the analyses prepared for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) is that these efforts went beyond the 2016 campaign and indeed intensified once Trump took office in 2017; that they made extensive use of nearly every social media site — especially Instagram; that they tried to exploit U.S. social divisions, especially regarding race (including messages directly targeted toward Minnesotans), and that tech firms only reluctantly helped investigators.
The Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian entity with clear Kremlin ties, used social media in a “sustained effort to manipulate the U.S. public and undermine democracy,” stated a report from the Computational Propaganda Research Project. While many societal segments were targeted, there was particular emphasis on “the most extreme conservatives and those with particular sensitivities to race and immigration” in order to “exacerbate social divisions and influence the agenda.”
Russia’s intent is “very clear,” Alina Polyakova, a fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, told an editorial writer. “It is to divide our society and amplify existing tensions.”
It’s also an effort to sow confusion and dampen turnout among traditionally Democratic voters via divisive social media missives. “Unfortunately, there is mounting evidence that social media are being used to manipulate and deceive the voting public — and to undermine democracies and degrade public life,” according to the report.
Such an assault should unite elected officials to come to the country’s defense. Unfortunately, too many in Congress conflate responding to Russia’s attack as not sufficiently defending Trump in the ongoing investigations into his campaign’s potential collusion with Russia’s attack.
There is already ample evidence for Washington to further hold Moscow, and Silicon Valley, accountable.
Sure, tech executives have apologized for their sites being hijacked and have pledged to do better. And yet, according to a second report, “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency,” none of the platforms (Twitter, Facebook and Alphabet) “appears to have turned over complete sets of related data to SSCI. … Each lacked core components that would have provided a fuller and more actionable picture.”
A core component should be defending democracy, not allowing foreign agents to undermine this country. And Americans bear some responsibility, too: They should be more savvy about sources of information and more charitable toward each other. Indeed, Washington, Silicon Valley and Main Street must transcend partisanship to respond to this attack on America.
“The message has already been sent to the Kremlin,” Polyakova said. “Which is that we are too mired in our own politics to be able to do anything about an attack on the U.S. democracy. And that’s what this was and continues to be, because these operations have not ceased.”
Partisanship cannot be allowed to paralyze America from defending its democracy.