The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We need more than indictments to counter foreign influence in our elections

Alanna Jarvis fills out her ballot last week during early voting in Greensboro, N.C. (Jay Westcott/News & Record via AP)

On the face of things, the news on Friday offered an encouraging sign about the state of American democracy. That’s when U.S. authorities indicted yet another Russian operative accused of election interference. But Elena Khusyaynova, 44, wasn’t charged for actions stemming from the vote two years ago. No, she stands accused of meddling in the 2018 midterm elections. You know — the elections we’re all supposed to take part in just 14 days from now.

Khusyaynova lives in St. Petersburg, where she works for Yevegeny Prigozhin, the very same friend of Vladimir Putin who ran the Internet Research Agency, a troll factory that became notorious for its efforts to use American social media to deepen political rifts back in 2016. So unless Khusyaynova comes to this country, it’s highly unlikely that she will ever end up in court. The indictment — which has nothing to do with Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation — sends a largely symbolic message to Putin: We’re still watching.

In a joint statement issued on the same day as the charges against Khusayaynova, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the FBI expressed concern “about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies.” The statement specifically emphasized that these campaigns are expected to continue through the 2018 midterms and on to 2020.

You might have thought that this startling announcement would have made headlines, led the prime-time news and dominated conversation for days to come. Yet nothing like that happened. The news about Khusyaynova virtually disappeared into the news lull of a Friday afternoon. President Trump never tweeted about it — probably because he, like the overwhelming majority of his party, doesn’t consider outside interference a “major problem” in our domestic politics.

The grim reality is that we are, as a nation, still vulnerable to foreign attempts to manipulate and exploit our political divisions to nefarious ends. We certainly know a lot more than we used to about how such operations work — the wall-to-wall coverage of the Mueller investigation and other revelations about Russia’s influence campaigns have helped. The federal government, above all the Department of Homeland Security, has made some strides in addressing the vulnerability of electoral systems to outside manipulation (though that was never the most likely threat). But we have yet to take advantage of the most effective weapon in our arsenal: awareness.

Consider how Sweden, which has faced concerted disinformation efforts from the Russians, safeguarded its general election last month. Swedish authorities trained lawmakers and election officials in how to recognize, report and cope with information threats. Working with Facebook, they set up a hotline for the reporting of fake posts, while media organizations distributed a media literacy toolkit aimed at helping schoolkids to distinguish fake stories from real ones. Most remarkably, the government printed a civil defense brochure containing a clear warning about hostile information campaigns — and then sent it to every household in the nation.

As a result, all 10 million Swedes, and particularly those within the government, have been systematically sensitized to the problem and actually have tools for responding. Most experts concur that this level of general knowledge is the most effective solution to the problem of hostile disinformation.

And yes, Sweden is, of course, much smaller than the United States. Yet that hasn’t stopped the European Union from taking the Swedish example as a model. The main factor preventing Americans from coming up with a similarly broad-based strategy has been our lack of political leadership — above all, a White House that has zero interest in addressing the problem in any sort of overarching way.

That’s why the piecemeal efforts of our government, as admirable as some of them have been, will be insufficient. While it’s great that some of our agencies are capable of putting their names on a joint press release, what we really need is a broad strategy that encompasses all the relevant bureaucracies — with one of them clearly in charge. In Sweden, that is the MSB (the Civil Contingencies Agency), which coordinates all corresponding government activities. The natural equivalent in the United States would be the Department of Homeland Security, which has been happy to step up to the clearly defined technical task of improving the security of elections, but has done relatively little to keep the general population attuned to threats.

(Asked to comment, DHS spokeswoman Sara Sendek responded: “As the DNI, DOJ, FBI, and DHS jointly stated last Friday, foreign interference in U.S. elections is a threat to our democracy; identifying and preventing this interference is a top priority of the Federal Government. We believe the greatest strength of our society is an engaged and informed public.”)

Malignant outsiders aren’t the only problem, either. Americans on both left and right, having learned from the Russians, are increasingly generating plenty of disinformation of their own. Will we ever be able to overcome our festering political divisions? We’d better hope so. Democracy can pull us in different directions and stoke heated debates without external manipulation. After all, it’s not just a matter of making sure that elections are won by the people we actually vote for. It’s also about ensuring that Americans can still trust our institutions and see democracy as a common good. Once that ideal erodes, we’re done for.