What if we cracked down on Russian trolls and it didn’t matter?
That’s the situation the United States faces as Election Day draws near. Yes, the President of the United States is still besotted by a diminutive Russian dictator. Yes, his minions who play legally acting officials on TV try to squelch even the tamest of warnings about Russian interference. And, yes, the president’s pals are still working arm-in-arm with men they know to be Russian agents.
But even against those headwinds, the job of an Internet Research Agency troll is even less rewarding in lolz than it is in rubles this time around. In the years since 2016, In the years since 2016, America’s social media platforms, government agencies, and ordinary folks have gotten better at spotting and slowing down Russian trolls. So hooray America? Hardly.
Fighting foreign trolls is a necessary but insufficient condition for ensuring an election is free of mass disinformation and confusion. The problem is that President Trump is doing what the St. Petersburg office drones could have only dreamed of in 2016: using the world’s most powerful megaphone to sow chaos and confusion about the voting process and de-legitimize American democracy to audiences at home and abroad, spreading lies about voting by mail and inventing and telling followers to break the law and vote twice.
In 2016, Russian trolls had the run of the place. The Obama administration and tech companies were both cowed into inaction by the fear of offending Republican sensibilities if they admitted what was plain for all to see: Russia was using hacked emails and an army of fake accounts to try and swing the election toward Trump. After Sen. Mitch McConnell indicated he’d take any attempts to alert the public in detail about the Russian campaign as an attack on Trump, the Obama administration stood down.
Things aren’t perfect now, but they are better.
Successive indictments, Senate intelligence reports, a Special Counsel’s investigation, and numerous bits of reporting have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Russian trolls and hackers were—and are—interfering in American elections.
Along the way it’s created a consensus that, yes, foreign governments do engage in election meddling with a particular focus on using the internet as a vector. It’s not a consensus that includes the president or a number of his allies, but it’s wide enough to give tech companies, law enforcement, and the intelligence community leeway to act against the trolls.
Act they have. Facebook, Google, and Twitter now all have dedicated troll hunting teams that issue periodic (some regular) reports that dox covert propaganda efforts linked to China, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Bolivia, and myriad others. Nor is it just the platforms themselves digging. Disinformation hunting is now a growth sector with a host of new companies and consultants, all vying for the tech dollars flowing into the industry.
There’s also more coordination between government and industry. In 2015, the FBI watched quietly as Alice Donovan, a fictitious persona operated by Russian intelligence, went on a spree across left-wing media and planted dozens of op-eds in American and western publications. This time around, the feds are less quiet. When the FBI learned about an Internet Research Agency-linked fake news outlet named PeaceData that was recruiting unwitting Western freelancers to produce content, they tipped off Facebook, which investigated and booted the outlet earlier than its operators appear to have expected.
The security landscape has changed, too. The Internet Research Agency’s memes and fake personas helped sow division and spread pro-Russian propaganda, but it was the hacked fruits of Democrats’ inboxes that gave Russia its largest audiences in 2016. That experience was scarring enough for the political class to take their security more seriously.
A recent Microsoft report warned that hackers from Russia, China, and Iran had all targeted election-related groups. It’s unclear whether those attempts were part of a more conventional espionage to suss out America’s future foreign policy or to dig up dirt for a hack-and-leak operation. In any case, as Microsoft wrote, the “majority of these attacks were detected and stopped,” with victims of the successful attacks already notified. It’s a stark contrast from late 2015 when, informed by an FBI phone call that their networks had been hacked by Russia, DNC staffers largely blew off the warning and let the hacking groups run free on their networks for months.
John Hultquist, the director of FireEye’s intelligence analysis, who’s written extensively on Russian hacking operations, says the campaigns are doing a better job of protecting their networks this cycle.
“The cybersecurity issue can’t be ignored by campaigns anymore. It’s heartening to see significant investment in defense, especially when every dollar is so important,” he told The Daily Beast.
But that hasn’t stopped Russian disinformation campaigns. The election is far from over, and there’s still plenty of time for Russian mischief. After all, Russian intelligence didn’t dump its second tranche of hacked emails until after the revelation of Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape in early October.
But the efforts against Moscow’s troll army have constrained and shaped their options when meddling. The Internet Research Agency’s troll accounts once ran rampant on marquee platforms like Facebook and Twitter while racking up millions of engagements and spending tens of thousands on ads. Today, Russian trolls have to be much more mindful of security because operating at any kind of scale is a fast route to suspension.
As a result, Russia has shifted to using local cutouts—in Africa, the Ukraine, and the U.S. Senate—to launder their talking points, a move that offers more security but less convenience.
The media appear to have learned at least some of their own lesson, too. After the intelligence community identified Andrii Derkach as a Russian agent and the Treasury Department sanctioned him, even Fox News has been a little gunshy about hyping the report that Sen. Ron Johnson wrote with Derkach’s help.
And yet. The 2020 vote is shaping up to be the most divisive, confusing, and contested election in decades, largely because of the president’s own conspiracy theorizing.
President Trump openly and without even the pretense of evidence has: falsely claimed that voting by mail will lead to massive fraud; admitted to trying to sabotage mail delivery in order to prevent supporters of his opponent from legally casting votes by mail; encouraged his followers to commit a felony and vote twice; lied about a fake plan by Nevada’s governor to “cheat on the ballots”; invented fake stories about Democratic governors sending “millions” of ballots to ineligible voters.
The steady stream of lies, intended to create the perception that any election result in which Trump loses is by definition illegitimate, has led left-wing political organizations, tech companies, and at least one state government to brace for the possibility of violence after a contested election result.
But when it comes to domestic disinformation from elected officials, there is no consensus that would allow tech companies to enforce their own rules against officeholders.
Facebook mostly ruled out enforcing its terms of service against elected officials in 2019, and Twitter has a similar public interest exception. In the rare cases when the companies do enforce their policies against officials like Trump, they’re met with brushback pitches from Republicans about “bias” against conservatives.
Lest tech companies be too vigilant in enforcing their terms of service, the Justice Department has—just in time for election season—rolled out a veiled threat against Silicon Valley in the form of a proposal to remove their liability protections over allegations of their supposed “anti-conservative bias” in their content moderation.
Disinformation from Trump and Russian trolls are, admittedly, two different species of rule breaking. Tech companies enforce against trolls not because of the content of their messages, per se, but because of the coordinated and inauthentic methods used to deliver them. Trump’s disinformation, by contrast, is delivered quite authentically from his own true thumbs but runs afoul of both Facebook and Twitter’s rules against voter suppression and election misinformation.
Both represent violations of the kinds of rules that would get normal people booted off a platform. Both help further Moscow’s ultimate goal of dividing the country and diminishing democracy’s global appeal. One we’ve done a half decent job against. The other? Not so much.