This piece originally appeared in USA Today on January 4, 2019.
Like an Internet meme promoting a narrative, many now say Russia’s online propaganda in America was focused on interfering with the 2016 elections. Federal and state lawmakers introduced bills, some of which became law, on this predicate. But two reports recently released by the Senate Intelligence Committee suggest this premise is mistaken.
As the 116th Congress and new state legislative sessions convene in 2019, lawmakers and their staff should carefully study these reports before they act. The reports reveal how the Russian efforts go far beyond election interference. The real goal is outright sabotage by tearing apart America’s social fabric.
Since 2016, states such as New York and Maryland have enacted laws that purport to address Russian interference with U.S. elections. Members of Congress also have justified bills such as the “Honest Ads Act” and “DISCLOSE Act” on this basis. This focus misses the proverbial forest for the trees. As a result, the legislative reaction is misguided and unnecessarily burdens core First Amendment speech. Ironically, these efforts advance Russia’s sabotage.
One of the reports, written mostly by staff at the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge, concludes that the Russian Internet Research Agency’s (IRA) “focus on elections was merely a small subset” of its activities. The larger aim was “focused on dividing Americans.”
The other report, written mostly by Oxford University researchers, points to how the Russian efforts began in 2013 and extended into 2018, and “increased substantially after the (2016) election.”
Both reports suggest Russia’s 2016 efforts favored Donald Trump’s campaign. However, the postelection propaganda boosted Trump supporters and opponents alike. The obvious goal was to widen Americans’ political divide.
More generally, only a very small percentage of online ads and posts focused on Trump and Hillary Clinton. The vast majority of content exploited pre-existing fault lines in American identity politics, pitting groups against each other based on race, religion, sexual orientation and region. Much of the location-based content targeted high African-American populations. The Oxford report concluded that “the targeting had more to do with race than a state’s role in the Electoral College or status as a swing state.”
To stoke racial tensions, the IRA created a fake group called “Black Matters.” It created a stylized logo, brand identity and presence on all major social media platforms. The IRA used an espionage model of “handlers” and “assets” to recruit African-Americans online to participate in protests and to act as writers, activists, lawyers and photographers for the fake group.
The IRA also promoted Texas and California secessionist movements; Muslim, Christian, LGBT and Native-American “culture, community and pride”; conspiracy theories; and other social and political hot-button issues. The propaganda campaign even sold “Black Matters” T-shirts and “LGBT-positive sex toys.” The New Knowledge report suggests that online sales of these items also might have helped fund the IRA’s operations.
Another key insight from the Oxford report is that “the most far reaching IRA activity is in organic posting, not advertisements.” The number of unpaid social media posts, created by human “trolls” and, in some cases, automated “bots,” far exceeded the number of paid ads. These posts garnered high levels of “engagement” in the form of “likes,” comments, “shares” and “retweets.” All this created a multiplier effect.
Most of the legislative response has focused on amending campaign finance laws. The measures propose new reporting, disclaimer and record-keeping requirements for paid online ads that legislators deem to have some tangential relationship with elections.
These far-reaching bills and laws are an extremely poor fit for the Russian threat. They unjustifiably burden Americans’ core First Amendment speech rights. Social media platforms have stopped selling political ads in Maryland and Washington state in response to these laws. The laws’ infirmities make them susceptible to constitutional challenges such as the one brought by several media outlets against the Maryland law, which is pending in a federal court.
The reports released by the Senate Intelligence Committee do more to explain the Russian threat than to suggest legislative solutions. Even so, lawmakers cannot address the problem without first correctly identifying it. So far, legislators have failed at even this initial step. Instead, they have rushed to pass laws burdening Americans’ free-speech rights.
This reaction has weakened one of this country’s great strengths and has unwittingly advanced Russia’s agenda.