FACEBOOK’S LATEST takedown of Russian-linked accounts and pages may be the most significant yet, and this time the removal has nothing to do with a U.S. election. The social media site eliminated about 500 pages, accounts and groups across Europe and Central Asia that masqueraded as local outlets but amplified content from state-sponsored news agency Rossiya Segodnya and its subsidiary Sputnik. This marks the first time an online influence operation has been directly linked to Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
Facebook deserves credit for the removal, which itself is a sign of how far the site has come since its failure to police its platform ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Of course, the enemy has come far as well, and Facebook will have to continue upping its game as Russia does the same. But the site’s progress throws into relief a troubling reality: A private company may be doing more to counteract systematic and corrupt Russian messaging than the United States has managed.
As this country waits on a report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on the full extent of a hostile power’s attempts to elevate Donald Trump to the presidency, Russia continues to interfere with democracies around the world, apparently undaunted. Sputnik’s efforts on Facebook were remarkably brazen, with pages targeting seven separate former Soviet countries all created on the same day. But the country’s online operations are not limited to the areas once under its control.
France has launched an investigation into whether Mr. Putin’s government or its allies had any role in fomenting more unrest amid the violent yellow-vest movement by sharing misinformation. In the United States, on the eve of last year’s midterm elections, Facebook removed accounts it believes were attached to the Internet Research Agency, the same group responsible for meddling two years before.
The Pentagon is running a worthy initiative to track hackers and trolls and alert them individually that the U.S. government is aware of their actions. The Treasury Department has also issued sanctions against some Russian assets and individuals for malign activity including election interference. But lawmakers have shied away from a more robust deterrence policy, and President Trump’s public pronouncements often undermine attempts to counter Russian aggression.
Russia is speaking with one voice around the world and seizing on social media’s viral mechanics to distribute its message. The United States is divided. As long as lawmakers here fail to establish a credible and concerted campaign to deter Mr. Putin and his cronies, Russia will pursue the tactics that have worked for it so well so far.