The old adage says, “Fool me once, shame on you — fool me twice, shame on me.” That advice would serve as well when we decide what to do about Russia’s disinformation efforts in the U.S. — what is now called “fake news.”
Many people who are worried about Russian interference in our 2016 elections are looking for scapegoats. The Trump campaign, the news media, and social-media goliaths such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter top the list. Obviously, a lot of the complaints have more to do with political posturing than actual solutions.
Recently, a parade of U.S. senators used a hearing to roast business leaders from Facebook, Google, and Twitter for their blasé attitude toward Russian “active measures,” for failing to flag Russian agents who paid for online political ads in rubles, and for the outsize influence the senators thought the three companies had. Senator John Kennedy (R., La.) asked Facebook’s general counsel, “Do you have a profile on me?” Then he ironically posted on his Facebook page a clip of him asking the question. Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) expressed shock that over a two-year period an estimated 126 million people, not the 10 million that Facebook had reported earlier, saw election-related disinformation from Russian operatives.
But before the hyperventilating makes the senators faint, let’s remember what that number is in context. Over the same two years, the average American came across 33 trillion pieces of content in their Facebook newsfeed. The average American saw Russian trolls in 0.004 percent of their content in Facebook’s newsfeed. That amounts to one of every 23,000 pieces of content. As columnist Peter Roff points out in U.S. News & World Report, “the idea that Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms are somehow to blame for the use they are put to by the Russians — or by trolls in another country working on their behalf — is akin to blaming the auto manufacturers for the fatalities that come as a result of drunk driving.”
Looking forward, the real question is, How does the U.S. learn from its vulnerability and best take measures to limit future disinformation efforts? The tech companies, of course, should be encouraged to do much more on their own. Facebook, for example, is taking steps to weed out foreign propaganda on its platform. It also agreed to cooperate with the U.S. government on cybersecurity and is adding new safeguards against abuse of its advertising division.
But we should also learn from what government and the media did during the Cold War to thwart Soviet efforts to undermine the Western alliance. Such efforts were an enormous part of the Soviet playbook. The BBC reports that by 1980 Moscow was spending $3 billion a year to destabilize America’s political system. It spread propaganda claiming that AIDS was the creation of a secret U.S. government program and that elements of the U.S. “deep state” intelligence agencies had ordered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Former KGB general Oleg Kalugin admitted that U.S. countermeasures were often effective in blunting the believability of Soviet propaganda.
The Soviets gained some traction for their efforts by taking genuine documents their spies had stolen from the West and adding false information to them. “We preferred to work on genuine documents with some additions and changes,” former KGB general Oleg Kalugin, a Soviet defector, told the BBC.
Under Ronald Regan’s administration, the U.S. fought such measure by setting up an “active measures working group,” with experts from many government agencies. Key officials worked directly with media outlets to identify that era’s versions of “fake news” and find ways to counter them. Ultimately, the Soviet efforts lost steam; Kalugin admitted that U.S. countermeasures were often effective in blunting the believability of the Soviet propaganda.
Today we need to remember the lessons from the ’80s. The U.S. government never censored or regulated news reports that were based on KGB-tainted documents. Instead, it monitored the KGB’s activities and worked with media companies to combat falsified content.
That should also be the approach to today’s new challenges from Moscow. Rather than regulating the big technology companies in what would probably be a ham-handed, backward-looking way, the government should harness the nimble creativity of Silicon Valley and work with its innovators to once again successfully discredit Moscow’s efforts at subversion.