The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Remember those Russian bots from 2016? They’re coming back.

Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and President Trump.
Russian President Vladi­mir Putin and President Trump. (Evan Vucci)

If you want to know whether Democrats will take back the House and/or Senate in November, just ask Russia.

Or rather, ask the Russian trolls who have triumphed in disseminating real “fake news” to influence U.S. elections. They credibly did so in 2016 by creating a more favorable electoral environment for Donald Trump. And, reportedly, they are determined to make trouble again in this year’s midterms.

In the meantime, Russian “bots” — applications that perform an automated task — were helping President Trump once again by creating momentum for the Feb. 2 release of the “Nunes memo,” the four-page brief from Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee chairman, alleging surveillance abuses by FBI investigators.

To do this, Russian operatives created a #ReleaseTheMemo campaign on Twitter and other platforms, which quickly went viral and created a sense of urgency and import to the committee’s findings — at least those by Republican members. Trump, who has final authority over such things, refused to approve the release of a Democratic rebuttal. Apparently, the latter was far more detailed than the Republican version and, according to the administration, could be harmful. Perhaps.

But, also, Trump likely wanted the Nunes memo released for its value in casting doubt on the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. And, undoubtedly, Trump and his Republican supporters want to end the investigation as soon as possible, discrediting the agency in the process. Not that the agency needed much help. With two employees exchanging romantic texts that also included expressions of contempt for Trump, it would be fairly easy for the predisposed to conclude that the entire investigation was contaminated.

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Thus far, the memo has succeeded only in damaging trust between the FBI and Congress, possibly hindering future sharing of classified material. As Senate Intelligence Committee member Angus King (I-Maine) pointed out Tuesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” the Senate and House panels are the only watchdogs of U.S. intelligence agencies. If the FBI or the CIA refuse to share, he said, “then nobody’s watching.”

The extent to which cyberantics by Russia have manipulated American thought is of no small concern or consequence. But when nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults get at least some of their news from social media, the potential reach of bad actors is incalculable. Facebook and YouTube lead the pack in sheer numbers of users, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. Sixty-six percent of U.S. adults use Facebook, with 45 percent getting news on the site.

YouTube can boast that 58 percent of U.S. adults watch its clips, but only 18 percent rely on the video emporium for news. Relatively few adults use Twitter — about 15 percent — but nearly all who do (74 percent) get their news from the little blue bird. Although its base is far smaller than Facebook’s, Twitter’s viral capacity is incalculable. One need only think of the global reach of the #MeToo movement that spread in a matter of virtual nanoseconds.

No one has better understood this infectious power than Trump. Crazy like a fox, he knows that he can imprint on the minds of his followers far more quickly than he could by traditional means — and without accountability. While President Barack Obama used Twitter to raise funds and convey campaign information, Trump uses his account to advance his opinion, taunt his enemies, exact revenge and, strategically, to misinform. Sort of the way Russia does.

No wonder he admires Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he spoke by phone on Monday. What do you suppose they talked about? The Russia investigation? Hashtags for future mind-melding ops? Midterm elections?

Those are just around the corner. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, testifying Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that Russia considers its efforts to disrupt the 2016 election a success and likely sees 2018 as another opportunity. While congressional leaders are hoping to pressure social media groups into becoming more responsible, the burden for making our democratic election process fail-safe falls to citizens to become more discerning as news consumers.

Unfortunately, the minds of social media users are likely becoming more, not less, malleable. Demographically, the largest increase in news consumers on social media has been among older, nonwhite, less-educated people, according to Pew. Except for the nonwhite part, this would seem a boon to the GOP, whose constituents, though whiter than the Democratic National Committee’s, tend to be older and slightly less educated than those of Democrats.

Trump once exclaimed, “I love the poorly educated!” Doubtless, Russia does, too.

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Read more on this issue:

Jennifer Rubin: We’re defenseless against Russian sabotage in the midterm elections. And Trump’s not helping.

Greg Sargent: Devin Nunes’s laughable spin to protect Trump crashes and burns

The Post’s View: Russia is betting it can push the U.S. out of Syria. That would be devastating.

David Ignatius: The Russia facts are hiding in plain sight