The prime minister of Britain has warned Moscow not to “weaponize information.” Spain’s defense minister says she has evidence of Russian meddling. The president of the United States, however, seems happy to take Vladimir Putin’s denials at face value.
Buckle up, America. You still may be trying to sort out how Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but the trolls never have let up. In order to protect its next elections, the United States is going to have to work around its president.
The White House insists Trump hasn’t gotten played by Putin, who assured him at a recent meeting in Asia that Russia didn’t meddle. Fair enough; maybe “played” is too strong of a word. The Russians didn’t have to work at this. All Putin, a former KGB officer, had to do was encourage Trump to keep thinking what he wanted to think, anyway.
Outside the White House, tracking Russian disinformation is a growth industry. Among the first watchdogs is the Ukrainian site stopfake.org, which began by focusing on the takeover of Crimea and the separatist campaign in eastern Ukraine.
In Britain, experts and lawmakers want to investigate possible interference in the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, and last year’s Brexit vote. Prime Minister Theresa May told the Russians: “We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.” Spain says it has evidence of meddling in the Catalonia independence referendum. The Danish Defense Ministry and the German parliament have been hacked.
Dana Priest, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on intelligence issues, quotes a senior U.S. intelligence official in the New Yorker as saying there had been no change in Russia’s influence activities. “They are still trying to use race, religion, Democrats, Republicans, E.U., NATO issues as a division. They are still on social media in every way.”
“We have no reason to believe that 2018 will be any different,” the intelligence official told Priest.
The website Hamilton68 provides a real-time glimpse at what the Russians are up to. A product of the bipartisan and trans-Atlantic Alliance for Securing Democracy, it monitors 600 Twitter feeds linked to the Russian influence campaign for popular hashtags and themes.
Several of its frequently cited sources appear to be U.S. blogs on the far-right fringe. As program director Laura Rosenberger, a foreign policy adviser to the Clinton campaign, and co-director Jamie Fly, who was an adviser to Marco Rubio’s campaign, note here, not all the stories are false. They highlight information that advances Russian interests. And when a big story is unfavorable, they may promote an alternate version that confuses matters.
Trump’s willingness to side with Putin prompted this blistering takedown, not by some wild-eyed lefty, but by David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush:
At this point in the proceedings, there can be no innocent explanation for Donald Trump’s rejection of the truth about Russian meddling in last year’s elections. Earlier, it may have been suggested, sympathetically, that the case had not yet been proven. That Trump’s vanity blocked him from acknowledging embarrassing facts. Or—more hopefully—that he was inspired by some Kissingerian grand design for a diplomatic breakthrough. Or that he was lazy. Or stubborn. Or uninformed. Or something, anything, other than … complicit. Not anymore.
As yet, it remains unproven whether Trump himself was personally complicit in Putin’s attack on U.S. democracy as it happened during last year’s presidential campaign. What is becoming ever-more undeniable is Trump’s complicity in the attack after the fact—and his willingness to smash the intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies in order to protect Putin, Russia, and evidently himself.
Citing Trump’s failure to shore up the election system, his foot-dragging on implementing new sanctions against Russia, and his firing of FBI Director James B. Comey, Frum concluded: “These are not the actions of an innocent man, however vain, stubborn or uninformed.”
If the president isn’t interested in leading the effort, what can the U.S. do to protect its elections? The effort becomes a patchwork of smaller-scale initiatives.
Priest said Daniel Coats, the director of national intelligence, has retained enough independence from the White House to take on a more public role in exposing disinformation. She urged him to work with Congress to make sure he has the resources to combat it.
Rosenberger and Fly highlight the need for those who failed to grasp the scope of the Russian effort in 2016 to do a better job.
Social media companies need to realize that stepping up now may prevent intrusive government regulation later. Young people must be taught how to distinguish trusted news sources from those with an agenda. Traditional news media need to be more careful about their sources.
The government should find ways to protect a decentralized voting system, and ensure that the Kremlin can’t funnel money to groups that will exploit divisions.
The U.S. is like a homeowner who leaves the front door unlocked after it has been robbed, they said. “Putin is trying to weaken the United States as a country by undermining its core strength – and Americans are letting him do so with next to no resistance.”