THE VICTIMS of social media manipulation have become the attackers. A New York Times article detailing how a group of Democrats borrowed Russian tactics in last year’s Senate race in Alabama is an ominous development in a dawning age of information warfare.
The Times reports that the operators of a secret experiment to undermine Republican candidate Roy Moore created a Facebook page to support a write-in conservative. They also, according to an internal report, “orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation” to link Moore’s campaign to “a Russian botnet.” News organizations picked up on the influx of accounts and reported the supposed foreign interference.
The effort was small, costing its organizers $100,000 in a $51 million election. But that does not make it any less worrying. Domestic actors on both sides of the aisle, it seems, are willing to turn the tricks that Russia has used against the United States against their opponents. Each time one party promotes a false narrative or unleashes a horde of Internet trolls, the other has more incentive to employ those same techniques — setting off a cycle of discord and doubt in our democracy. The United States has no system in place to stop the spiral.
The country stands at a critical juncture: Either society wards off the spread of these strategies or they become the new normal. One answer is self-restraint. Internet billionaire Reid Hoffman, who says he unknowingly funded the Alabama project, was right to apologize this week. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) is also right to demand an investigation. But candidates, political committees, big nongovernmental organizations and others should also pledge not to engage in inauthentic activity, just as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee promised not to promote hacked material in the 2018 midterms.
It may be unrealistic to expect the president and Republican allies to commit to such an agreement, given their record on confronting Russian subversion. But the upcoming presidential primary will offer Democrats a test; already, intraparty feuds are spreading on online networks. As they announce their campaigns, contenders should promise not to do to their rivals what Russia did to them in 2016.
Structural changes will help, too. Bipartisan appetite in the Senate for protective measures was curbed this year by a recalcitrant House. With Democrats in charge, things could change. Congress should start by authorizing more information-sharing between the Department of Homeland Security and federal party committees and campaigns to catch manipulators in the act, no matter where they come from. Members of both Moore’s and Jones’s staffs, for example, noticed something was off.
The Russians’ goal in 2016 may have been to get Donald Trump elected, but it was also to convince Americans that the democracy we had spent our lives believing in could not be trusted after all. Now it is up to us to prove them wrong.