In a different America, Tuesday’s announcement by U.S. officials that Russian intelligence services are using social media platforms to spread COVID-19 disinformation would have been a five-alarm political crisis. In Donald Trump’s unprepared and understaffed White House, it was just another news cycle.
What intelligence officials revealed sounds depressingly familiar: Russian agents connected to the Kremlin’s military intelligence service created hundreds of truth-free, pro-Russian “news stories” across three websites. Then, apparently without alerting a single social media platform, Russian agents created fake profiles to amplify their propaganda across the internet.
The Russian campaign was simple yet effective, leveraging Trump’s own contradictory and misleading statements on coronavirus to put their false narrative in front of American voters. And what, exactly, was the narrative? “Chaos in the Blue Cities,” one headline reads. Another warns that electing Joe Biden would make America’s coronavirus crisis even worse. And because Republicans have little interest in acknowledging or exposing Russian involvement, we face exactly the same risk we faced in 2016.
In fact, if this sounds a lot like the 2016 Russian disinformation campaign explored at length in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s official report, it’s because the tactics are largely unchanged. That Russian agents so easily compromised American information security not once but twice, in two successive election years, offers a stark portrait of how the Trump administration’s four-year refusal to hold Russia accountable jeopardizes American national security and public health.
There’s no question the Trump administration has actively worsened the situation. In February, Senate Republicans with Trump’s blessing blocked three election security bills aimed at beefing up America’s ability to detect and mitigate disinformation campaigns exactly like this one. Meanwhile, big tech companies like Twitter and Facebook have resisted calls by the public and lawmakers to take a more active stance addressing COVID-19 disinformation.
That may be changing. In a contentious hearing before the House Antitrust Subcommittee on Wednesday, lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle reminded the CEOs of Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook why they rarely visit Capitol Hill. While the hearing largely focused on the anticompetitive behavior of America’s tech giants, security concerns were also a hot topic.
Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler cornered Mark Zuckerberg in an early exchange, baiting Zuck into admitting Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram was fueled by the desire to muzzle a competitor—something Nadler reminded Zuckerberg was a violation of antitrust law. On the right, Rep. Ken Buck dragged the Big Tech titans for failing to fight the use of slave labor in their foreign supply chains. In a tense exchange, Buck directly accused Google CEO Sundar Pichai of engaging in corporate espionage and “stealing what you don’t want to create yourself.”
Of course, some Republicans just played the usual partisan games. Hot air from GOP Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan about social media platforms “censoring” conservative voices highlighted the challenges that any serious attempt to protect Americans from disinformation will face. For Trumpists like Jordan, there is no clear line between preventing disinformation campaigns and censoring Donald Trump Jr. Everyone should be free to post anything they want. Even if the goal is to undermine democratic institutions.
“Isn’t it up to somebody else to say, ‘Hey, this isn’t true’ rather than have Twitter or Facebook take [content] down?” asked Sensenbrenner. Intentionally or not, he stumbled onto the main reason why combating foreign disinformation campaigns has been such a challenge: Republicans expect someone else to do the work of identifying and rooting out Kremlin propaganda campaigns. The Republican contempt of government has metastasized into a destructive contempt for governing.
Listen, I’m no fan of the sprawling octopus Big Tech has become. In the past I’ve written about my time in Facebook’s Washington, D.C., office and why I now support Senator Elizabeth Warren’s call to break up Mark Zuckerberg’s giant. But I also see the cynical political game at the heart of Republican complaints about social media platforms. It isn’t fair or realistic to expect tech companies to meet the challenge of foreign election meddling if the president of the United States refuses to make the issue a top policy priority.
Twitter and Facebook should certainly moderate their platforms to eliminate lies and distortions. But at the same time it’s just not possible for them to efficiently identify and counteract sophisticated disinformation campaigns. That’s the job of American intelligence officials—what few we have left. As of this writing, there are critical vacancies in the Department of Defense for a principal deputy undersecretary for intelligence, a principal deputy undersecretary for policy, and two other posts that are important to identifying and rooting out complex foreign disinformation campaigns.
Republicans are quick to paint any attempts to regulate content on the Internet as a shadowy conspiracy designed to deplatform conservatives and damage Donald Trump’s re-election prospects. That leaves America’s most vital communications channels open to abuse by malevolent foreign actors and anyone interested in sowing dissent and confusion.
It’s bad enough when the subject of those disinformation campaigns is fake electoral news. But when the subject is spreading dangerous lies about COVID-19, we count the cost in lost human lives.