After meeting with Vladimir Putin briefly at a summit in Vietnam this week, Trump announced that he believes the Russian president when he says that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 presidential election. He later amended that statement, clarifying that “I believe that he feels that he and Russia did not meddle in the election. As to whether I believe it or not, I am with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with the leadership.”
If Trump believes that Putin genuinely did not know about his own intelligence apparatus’ efforts to meddle in the election, he is not, in fact, “with our agencies,” which concluded months ago that Putin was intimately and directly involved with overseeing the operation.
When the CIA and FBI made their first public statements about Russian interference earlier this year, few Americans had a clear sense of what such an operation might involve. But in the last few weeks, Americans had the chance to examine some of the advertisements used by the Russian government to influence the outcome of the election. Some ads were targeted at right-leaning voters, others at left-leaning ones, but the underlying tone and implication of most of the ads was the same: The other side is not the opposition, but the enemy.
If Trump actually reads his daily intelligence briefings, he should know that this is part and parcel of Russia’s global strategy: push democratic electorates to choose leaders and policies that weaken international institutions while leveraging regional grievances to divide those countries from within. Russia views the United States, NATO, and the EU as the chief obstacles to Russia’s restoration as the illiberal superpower, and an America hobbled by infighting and questions of electoral legitimacy clearly helped further Russian ends. With Brexit, Trump, and now Catalonia mounted in the Kremlin trophy room, there is little reason to expect them to stop any time soon.
So, with our own president still at odds with his own intelligence community about the nature of the problem, what can we do to protect the integrity of our next elections? These ads are heinous, but so are some ads run by American politicians themselves. Certainly we can harden our networks to give foreign actors fewer tools to with which to manipulate us. Better security, after all, might have prevented the hacks of the DNC and RNC. But what if the greatest vulnerability in our democracy isn’t our digital networks, but our voters’ own minds? Is there a way to harden them against fake news?
The answer is yes, and it starts with campaign finance reform.
“I’m so-and-so, and I approved this message.”
We make candidates say this for at least two reasons. One was that it was supposed to shame candidates out of making truly disingenuous claims or arguments, although this logic may have been based on an optimistic estimation of candidates’ capacity for shame.
The second, more important function is to remind voters that the attack ad is not a newscast, but a 30 second spot paid for by the opposing candidate. For example, no one wondered who was accusing Barry Goldwater of risking nuclear war with the Soviets: President Lyndon Johnson was. He did the voiceover himself. No one wondered who was accusing Governor Dukakis of opening the doors to the prisons. President George H.W. Bush had been talking about Willie Horton for months.
Such blatantly racist political ads are corrosive to our country and insulting to voters. But at least voters know where these ads come from and what their purpose is, which hopefully introduces a healthy dose of skepticism.
With the erosion of campaign finance rules, we also have become accustomed to seeing third-party ads, too. These ads are sometimes harder to identify with a particular side or candidate, but it does not take a huge leap for the average viewer to figure out why the American Petroleum Institute would run ads against a Democrat, or why the Sierra Club would run ads against a Republican. Once those leaps have been made, the viewer can contextualize the ad.
But no such process takes place with online ads. Many ads used by the Russians are designed to appear to come from concerned citizens, ardent patriots merely warning their neighbors of impending danger or ongoing injustice. Others go in the opposite direction, attempting to pass themselves off as original journalism or official reports. For many Americans, the skeptical defenses that would be immediately triggered by the gloomy bass notes and menacing voiceover of a TV attack ad are completely absent when viewing equally dubious content in their social media streams.
The social media giants, Facebook especially, seem to have been blind to this danger. Senator Franken excoriated Facebook’s general counsel for his firm’s apparent inability to connect the dots between American political ads purchased with Russian rubles. As with other efforts to harden our critical infrastructure, the government wants technology companies to do more to combat the threat, while technology companies want greater legal protections from the government if they are going to go out on a limb.
Under the present campaign finance regime, though, Congress is not in a strong position to demand that Silicon Valley solve this problem. Foreign spending aimed at influencing American elections is illegal, but how can that law be enforced when online political advertising is almost completely unregulated? Once the ad is bought, it may be extremely difficult to determine if the buyer was working on behalf of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, or Lyndon LaRouche.
If the United States is to get serious about counteracting Russian meddling in its elections, we need comprehensive campaign finance reform across all media—starting with extending the very limited reporting and documentation requirements expected of TV ads to online ads. In many modern democracies, campaign donations are strictly regulated; in some, corporate giving is banned all together.
In light of Citizens United v. FEC, major reforms that establish the public financing of campaigns, or that ban corporate donations, are impossible at present. But while corporate dark money has been a body blow to the legitimacy of our democracy, sustained foreign interference would be its death knell.
Thus, it falls on all of us to do our part. That means calling out friends, peers, and relatives when they share obvious nonsense on Facebook. But Congress must take action as well. After all, Vladimir Putin has been debasing our electoral process with phony, misleading ads designed to divide and confuse Americans. Members of Congress need to stand up and remind him, “hey, that’s our job.”
Nathan Kohlenberg is a Fellow at Truman National Security Project. Views expressed are his own.