Russian election meddling was sophisticated and pervasive — and it's not over

Lawmakers are right to demand answers from Facebook and Twitter regarding the extent to which Russian hackers may have used the social media companies to spread disinformation and manipulate public opinion during the run-up to the 2016 elections. While not all the evidence is in and many questions remain, the idea that agents of a foreign government sought to interfere directly in our democratic process should be deeply disturbing to all Americans. Congress needs to get to the bottom of exactly what happened and take the necessary steps to prevent it from happening again, and the companies need to own up to their responsibility.

The issue hit home this week following reports that a social media advertisement targeting Baltimore users after the 2015 riots sparked by Freddie Gray’s death in police custody was likely part of a broader effort by Russian intelligence operatives to sow discontent and deepen racial tension here and elsewhere across the country. The reports cited at least one similar ad aimed at users in Ferguson, Mo., where violent protests erupted in 2014 after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American man. Both ads apparently were part of a sophisticated hacking scheme that allowed whoever created them to conceal their true identity and location.

Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen expressed alarm over the prospect that Russia had “used Facebook ads to try to influence our elections — and reportedly went so far as to exploit the tragic death of Freddie Gray.” Meanwhile Rep. Elijah E. Cummings called on the company to “work vigorously to strengthen its advertising policies and renew users’ trust in the integrity of its systems.”

Facebook reportedly is preparing to turn over to congressional investigators some 3,000 ads purchased by a Russian entity with alleged ties to the Kremlin. Those messages are expected to shed new light not only on how widespread the Russian hacking operation was but how the perpetrators knew which communities were most vulnerable to being targeted with fake news stories and propaganda. The Baltimore and Ferguson ads seem to suggest that whoever created them knew exactly which buttons to push in order to have the greatest impact.

Moreover, there appears to be some evidence that a Russian disinformation campaign aimed at destabilizing democratic institutions in the U.S. has continued to target social media users here in the aftermath of last year’s presidential election. Reports that hackers recently sought to spread misleading stories about the protests against police brutality by National Football League players and fans suggest foreign intelligence agencies are still actively targeting U.S. social media as a way of influencing American public opinion. And as in the case of the attacks on Facebook and Twitter, the goal of such interference may not be so much to promote a particular policy or candidate for office as to undermine overall confidence more generally in democratic institutions, as Russia has attempted — with some success — to do in Ukraine and elsewhere in eastern Europe.

Unfortunately, the U.S. is particularly vulnerable to such interference at this moment in its history because President Donald Trump is using the same divisive tactics as the Russian hackers. Rather than seeking to unite people around core American values, Mr. Trump has made turning Americans against each other into an art form based on “alternative facts” and outright lies. When the president of the United States knowingly says things that are patently untrue, then attacks anyone who dares point out the falsehood, the effect is the same as that of a disinformation campaign orchestrated by a foreign adversary. It undermines public confidence in our leaders and our institutions and ultimately destroys the credibility of government itself.

We can only hope that Congress will see beyond the politics and investigate the matter with the thoroughness the subject deserves. President Trump, who may or may not have benefited politically from that interference — and who has repeatedly sought to dismiss concerns about the legitimacy of the outcome of the election last November — obviously has no moral standing to criticize the investigators’ methods or their findings. The American people deserve a full accounting of Russia’s role in the last election, and Congress must see that they get it. Executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google, many of whom initially dismissed concerns about Russian hacking, have reportedly been called to testify before Congress on what they knew and when they knew it They need to be completely open and transparent. Nothing less than American democracy is at stake.

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