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Where to Go from Here: Russian Interference

Image via U.S. News

Look no further than events in Europe to see how far Russia will go to upset the democratic process in other nations.

It is clear, at this point, that some measure of Russian interference into the 2016 U.S. Election occurred. This interference included a series of falsified news articles and posts, in addition to the hacking and dissemination of emails pertaining to the Democratic National Convention.

Many details about the level of involvement from those in the Trump campaign are still unknown. Yet regardless of how large and lasting this event ultimately is to the U.S., it represents only a portion of a broader Russian campaign to destabilize the West.

In many European countries, this push by Russia has involved much more dramatic actions. Russia is suspected to have attempted to hack French presidential candidates, spied on Danish officials, and interfered with voting registration in the UK. All of these came in the form of cyber attacks, similar to those suspected to have occurred in the U.S.. Though the use of cyber attacks, Russia has achieved a newfound level of reach.

In Montenegro last year, a long period of cyber espionage and fake news culminated in the planning of an election-day armed coup, thankfully prevented at nearly the eleventh hour. Although the concept that Russia may have affected the recent U.S. election is certainly unsettling, it would appear that the means used have been drastically more severe elsewhere.

It stands to reason, of course, that Russia would be willing to push further in Europe.  After all, success in these countries offers a higher reward. While pushing the U.S. into a more nationalist, isolationist mindset may hold real benefits for Russia in terms of degrading NATO cooperation, success in Europe, especially eastern Europe, could have tangible, physical benefits; the plot for Montenegro was devised after a refusal to allow Russia to use Montenegrin ports.

Placing pro-Russia candidates in office in Europe will not only directly push European institutions apart but could simultaneously boost Russia’s standing in absolute terms as well. Furthermore, in Eastern Europe, it is less risky for Russia to push hard for the changes in leadership that they wish to see. Yet that is not to say that the Montenegrin case is a one-off event. This should serve as a warning of how far Russia is willing to go in its quest to interrupt Western democracy.

It is a warning that many European nations have heeded, both with increased awareness and with active suppression. Different EU countries employ different tactics, ranging from changing campaign norms to actively teaching schoolchildren how to recognize foreign propaganda. Some citizens, dubbing themselves “elves,” work to oust Russian-employed trolls. The EU itself has created a task force to identify and catalog instances of fake elections news. Furthermore, many states have put pressure on social media companies to suppress accounts seeking to spread falsehoods or sway impressionable voters, with some successes. All across the continent, states are employing increasingly direct measures of fending off Russian interference.

Here, by contrast, the administration has actively impeded such increased vigilance.  Regardless of whether any in the Trump campaign colluded or cooperated with Russian forces during the election, their actions since then have done nothing to promote the increased clarity seen in Europe and have done much to increase confusion to allow more space for further Russian propagandizing.

Rather than taking measures to increase the visibility of Russian-sponsored fake news, the administration has instead applied this term as an epithet toward reputable news agencies that refuse to ideologically align with the president.  This has increased the ability of Russian propaganda to masquerade as legitimate fact, as mainstream sources are questioned and eyes move to more disparate, ideologically focused media. Rather than take action to limit the effectiveness of social media as a vector for the spread of these falsehoods, our president has increasingly relied on these platforms as his preferred mode of communication, furthering their stature. And investigations into how far Russian interference could have reached here have faced opposition at every turn.

In Europe, Russian interference is not new. Europeans have greater experience dealing with this threat. They have recognized that active measures to educate the public and suppress false information are necessary to combat it. Here, however, this Russian informational threat is much more unknown.

Investigations into what happened last year must continue, yet we must also recognize that this tactic, having been met with success (through confusion and increased partisanship, regardless of its true effect on the election results) is likely to continue.  Deducing exactly what happened last year is imperative, yet it is only part of what we must do. We must focus also on the future, and work to diminish the effectiveness of this tactic.  In doing this, we would be well served to copy the European example. This will not be easy.

Whether those currently in power helped to perpetrate this threat or not, it did undeniably benefit them, and it is unlikely that our current administration will take steps to limit further Russian moves. We must take this on ourselves, and learn to recognize and steel ourselves against inflammatory false stories. We must work to pressure the organizations that bring us our news to be more discerning in what they promote.

Public participation has never been stronger. Aiming a portion of this pressure at suppressing the actions of the Russian government as well as our own is a critical step. We can resist the actions of this administration now but diverting some of this agitation toward protecting our electoral and journalistic traditions is key to ensuring a stable, progressive, and cooperative future for America.

Vaughn Campbell studies international relations at Brown University. He has written also for The Brown Daily Herald.

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