Nearly two years after a massive Russian disinformation campaign nefariously swayed the US elections, very little has changed. While we have learned a great deal about how Russian trolls fed into our increasingly tribal political system to create chaos and sow distrust, our elections and online consumption of political news is no more safe or secure from meddling. Despite widespread acceptance that Russian hackers meddled in the 2016 elections, the Trump administration has continually softened, refuted and even combatted any efforts to take action to safeguard our election process from future meddling.
At every opportunity to address this clear and present weakness, the Trump administration has dismissed or downplayed the role that disinformation played in the 2016 elections. This lack of acknowledgement that there even is a problem is constraining the national security agencies from effectively allocating resources toward ensuring free and fair elections in 2018, 2020, and beyond. With 35 Senate seats and all 435 House seats up for election this November, we must brace ourselves for the inevitable: these campaigns, many in hotly contested districts, are the next targets.
While inaction from the Trump administration is not entirely unexpected, there is another option: national party organizations like the DNC, DCCC, and RNC have the capability of mounting a defense themselves. When traditional attack ads, smear campaigns and deceitful activities occurred in past elections, these organizations deployed their resources to shine a light on bad behavior. So how about now? Unfortunately, political institutions are unwilling to take decisive action in spite of the overwhelming consensus of the intelligence community, and now Senate Special Committee on Intelligence, that disinformation campaigns are impacting our elections. The defense of our democracy has been left to the social media companies who, to their credit, are now taking the problem more seriously - but that isn’t enough.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google have felt the weight of public criticism for the role each platform played in facilitating 2016 election interference. For many months, the leadership at the helm of these companies minimized the true impact their platforms have in swaying public opinion. While it is concerning that social media leaders initially avoided responsibility, the tech sector is now the primary driver behind initiatives to prevent disinformation from interfering in future elections.
Facebook has opened up about fake news, deleted hundreds of millions of fake accounts, and is now requiring verified identities to publish political advertising. Twitter has also deleted many bot accounts and had updated its algorithms to identify viral manipulation faster than ever before. These tactics will almost certainly make it more difficult to corrupt public discourse in 2018, and should be commended. However, the 2016 election showed us that not only are our social media channels susceptible to being gamed by bad actors pushing and their propaganda, but also that, our electorate is so drawn to the sensational and fake news that anyone could manufacture a narrative enough to impact an election. The playbooks has been left wide open and next time the bad actors likely won’t be Russian.
We are already seeing modest attempts at artificial amplification on behalf of House and Senate candidates. Shady marketplaces cheaply selling access to fake accounts mean that anyone looking to manufacture a crowd and push talking points can make their position look mainstream . Every race is potentially vulnerable to this type of manipulation, no matter how small. Black markets for disinformation empower the well-funded to manufacture consensus online and elongate the already sizable chasm between the people and their elected officials. Those running for House, State Senate or other local seats don’t have the expertise to identify or defend themselves against information attacks, and no government organization or oversight body exists to step in.
This is new territory, and it will take significant effort to solve a problem as complex as online disinformation. The key is very clear: collaboration. We need stronger collaboration between the tech sector, government, and political organizations. No one party is going to do this alone.
The administration must make this a priority to protect the country. While the Trump administration is busy calling everything fake news and denying the impact of disinformation campaigns on the 2016 election, more bad actors are queueing up to sway future elections for more specific reasons than just to enact chaos and disorder. Stakeholders are procuring roadmaps to profit off of our government's inaction.
Political parties must step up and take this seriously. They should be allocating funds, response teams, and campaigns to neutralize disinformation so that the public can vote with the most accurate information available.
If you’ve been waiting for some regulating agency or magic bullet to solve the problem, it’s not coming. Help is not on the way. Now is the time for corporations, government, and the public to the hard work of collaborating on a solution. Only be working together will be be able to defend our elections against the ongoing threat of disinformation.
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