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The Russians will be back

We can reasonably expect Russian meddling in the 2018 election campaign. Evidence is clear that Russians are using sophisticated cyber attacks to corrupt the integrity of the U.S. electoral system. This transcends a single election and ultimately strikes at the heart of our democracy.

Almost a year has passed since the last election, and Washington has failed to take any meaningful action to stem such interference. A handful of hearings is a weak response.

The Internet is a fast-growing market for political ads. In 2016, more than $1.4 billion was spent on digital ads, according to Ad Age — nearly eight times the amount spent only four years earlier. Facebook and Google received 85 percent of these revenues. The Trump campaign spent roughly $70 million on Facebook ads. This phenomenon may be widely accepted as a new normal in political communications, significantly reducing the relevance of political parties and the newspapers as intermediaries. However, it must also be recognized as one that is bot-driven and rife with cheap, fake news.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans now receive news on social media, and one-fifth do so often. Pew found these numbers are increasing quickly. Anyone can publish on these platforms. Some single idea, without any context or validity, can go viral. Yet powerful Internet companies, for the most part, disavow any responsibility for the materials they publish and promote.

Crooked and malicious online political ads produce political polarization, fragmentation and extremism. And the immediacy, speed and relatively low cost of social media give such material remarkable reach. Customized ads confirm biases. They calcify positions. They damage social and cultural cohesion. These ads discourage shared conversations, honest exchange, clear thinking and ultimately civic respect and understanding.

Enter the Russians. Facebook reports that it shut down 470 fake accounts with links to Russia — reaching 10 million people — that bought some 3,000 political ads to run in the 2016 presidential campaign. Secured Borders, an anti-immigrant Facebook entity created by Russians for that campaign, attracted more than 133,000 followers before it was pulled.

Twitter confirms it uncovered 201 phony accounts linked to the Russians that purchased thousands of ads. The company also announced that the Russian news site RT, which has close ties to the Kremlin, spent $274,000 on ads during the 2016 election. Google revealed that Russian agents spent tens of thousands of dollars on ads to influence the election.

Russia and its agents are our enemies. The major Internet platforms — Facebook, Google and Twitter — have provided the avenues for their toxic mischief. Members of Congress are aware of what the Russians have done and what they will continue to do if not stopped.

A few Senators — Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — very recently have introduced legislation to address some of these problems, by requiring Internet companies to disclose who’s buying political ads. However, the Republican leadership in Congress has shown little interest in aggressively confronting the potential Russian threats in the 2018 election.

Public hearings scheduled in the House and Senate on Nov. 1 may reveal more; representatives from the three massive online social media platforms have all been called to testify. Thus far, they have shown little interest in self-regulation and a striking interest in influencing Congress. Facebook, which along with Twitter has been accused of deleting extensive records of Russian involvement in the 2016 campaign, has increased its third quarter Washington lobbying budget by 41 percent — to $2.85 million — over that period last year, and Google, by 9 percent to $4.17 million.

New standards of transparency and corporate responsibility are required. The problems may be beyond simple disclosure. The Russians are beating us badly in the new world of destructive cyber sophistication.

It is illegal, under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, for foreign countries or their agents to buy political ads in the U.S. The political ads carried by broadcasters, radios and satellite providers are regulated. The big social media firms are already being challenged by the European Union regarding their violations in antitrust and in privacy and hate-speech practices. The U.S. is way behind in establishing public standards to regulate ads on the Internet and the ways political speech moves over the Web.

We need both to defend our Internet platforms against online attacks and to require transparency by Internet companies in order to protect the most basic element of our political system: our elections. Foreign propaganda and the insidious manipulation of information discredit the legitimacy of our elections, the winners and our very democracy.

Perry L. Weed, attorney and founder/director of the Economic Club of Annapolis. His e-mail is plweed@verizon.net.

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