Those who claim to have been shocked the Russians might have meddled in the 2016 election are either playing for the cameras or not paying attention. They, and the Soviets before them have employed “active measures”- a technical term that applies to all kinds of espionage - in the United States and the West practically from the moment the Czar was overthrown.
For those who came in late, this kind of stuff is not new. And the U.S. does it, too. We’ve spent money on everything from propaganda to keep the Communists from coming to power in Italy after World War II to trying to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from the top job in the Israeli government.
Earlier this week, a congressional committee took a deep dive into the alleged Russian interference. The matter of foreign manipulation of the U.S. electorate is one on which Congress should tread carefully. It’s a lot more complex than the Washington politicians and the media stars who travel the Acela between New York and the nation’s capital want you to believe.
The idea was first pushed by people looking for a reason Hillary Clinton lost an election she seemed destined by fate to win. It’s true the Russians put ads on the web. It’s true the Trump campaign met with some Russians and may, as charged, have sought a few of them out to see if they had dirt on Clinton not available through normal channels.
Yet, it’s also true the Democrats were up to much the same thing. The so-called dossier on Trump prepared by Christopher Steele, variously described as a former British intelligence operative, was produced through a private opposition research effort secretly financed by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
That aside, some members of Congress think social media companies are to blame. As the conduits through which information about both Clinton and Trump spread through the electorate, they are supposed to shoulder much of the responsibility for what occurred.
But look at the numbers. Facebook, one of several social media companies called this past week to testify at one point volunteered that ads with content attributable to the Russians in some way went into the newsfeeds of 29 million Americans over a two-year period.
When they finally got all the way downstream they’d been seen, the company estimates, by close to 126 million people, maybe more. That’s at least a third of the country but, over the same period, Americans had more than 30 trillion items flow through their news feed.
Even if you believe every single allegedly Russian spot was read and sent along to at least one other person it constitutes less than one half of one percent of everything people saw. More importantly, no one has shown through any kind of study these ads affected the way people voted.
That’s the key. It’s not a question of whether the Russians were trying to manipulate things; they almost certainly were. The question is whether it worked. In all likelihood it didn’t, though truth is probably unknowable.
Some in Congress don’t care. Needing to look like they’re on the alert and with little consideration of the implication of what they’ve proposed, legislation to regulate Net-based ads and other political communications has already been introduced. These are regulations social media platforms will have to enforce. As blame-shifting goes, that’s like Congress telling computer manufacturers it’s their job to put a stop to hacking and identity theft.
If Congress wants to go any further down this road it should keep the focus where it belongs. Suggesting Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies are somehow complicit in espionage because their platforms were used and abused by techies working for the Russians to spread disinformation misses the point. Facebook is already working on its own to prevent a replay of what happened in 2016. So, one suspects, are the other social media companies.
The government, particularly the U.S. intelligence community should be its willing, helpful partner. Cooperation between the public and private sector will maximize both the efforts and the opportunities to keep disinformation from Russia or anywhere else from spreading while protecting our right to free speech. It’s a win-win. With the government mandates included in the legislative proposals already introduced in Congress, everyone loses.
Roff is a former senior political writer for UPI and a well-known commentator based in Washington, D.C. Email him at peter.Roff@Verizon.net.