This op-ed was originally published in USA TODAY on July 12, 2018
The Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report last week concurring with the U.S. intelligence community’s unanimous assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a massive influence campaign aimed at the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The attack included the targeting of election infrastructure, email hacks, weaponized leaks, overt propaganda and a covert, large-scale disinformation effort on social media feeds like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
In many ways, this threat is not new. The Kremlin has been conducting information warfare or “active measures” against the West for decades. What is new, however, are social media tools with the reach and power to magnify propaganda and false information with a scale and precision that would have been unimaginable back in the days of the Berlin Wall.
The Soviet Politburo could only have dreamed of the capability Russia now has to target voters directly in the U.S., Europe and other democracies with propaganda, misinformation and disinformation. Twenty-first century social media tools have the potential to further erode public confidence in western institutions and undermine the shared sense of facts that is supposed to be the foundation of honest political debate.
In 2016, we were taken by surprise. In 2018, there are no excuses. We must be ready.
Message to Russia as Trump meets Putin
That is why we are teaming up with legislators from Canada and Europe to sound the alarm. Following this week’s NATO summit, parliamentarians from across Europe and North America will meet Monday in Washington, D.C., the same day President Donald Trump and Putin meet in Helsinki.
Our goal must be to demonstrate to the world that the community of democratic nations does not intend to accede to Putin’s or any other authoritarian’s view of the world. We will resist Russia’s aggression. As legislators, we have a responsibility to address that threat — particularly on social media.
First, as elected officials, we have a duty to use our positions to shine a light on Russia’s actions and capabilities. Utilizing our investigative tools and public platforms, legislators must expose the full scale and scope of Russia’s schemes to weaken democracies.
The two of us are currently engaged in a bipartisan effort in the Senate Intelligence Committee to uncover Russia’s activities during the 2016 elections and publicly detail its array of asymmetric capabilities. Similarly, our colleagues in the British Parliament, led by Damian Collins, are conducting an inquiry on “fake news” and how it was used by both foreign and domestic actors to influence the Brexit vote.
But it is not enough simply to shine a bright light on Russian aggression. As legislators, we also are responsible for crafting and passing laws to protect our democracy while also preserving freedom of expression.
There is little doubt that our own government and our laws have not kept pace with technological change. The magnitude of this challenge is poised only to expand with improvements in artificial intelligence, machine learning and related advancements like “deep fake” video manipulation. This technology can literally put words in someone’s mouth, creating a false narrative that can spread across the globe in minutes.
As our committee’s work has helped to establish, a key goal of Russian disinformation is to fracture the ability of open societies to reach social and political consensus — an objective significantly furthered when Americans can no longer "their lying eyes." If we hope to stay resilient against these threats, we’re going to need laws that keep up.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has put forward several bipartisan proposals to improve election security and ensure that the intelligence community does a better job of tracking, sharing and responding to efforts by any foreign power to influence our elections, including through social media.These include making clear to adversaries that we consider attacking our election infrastructure a hostile act and will respond accordingly, and to states that they should replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems as quickly as possible.
As stewards of oversight, we also have a responsibility to ensure our respective governments are ready to track and attack the ongoing threat from influence operations. In the U.S., we are not convinced that the national security community is currently organized to adequately rise to this challenge.
Informed public best defense against Russia
Finally, we have a responsibility as public officials to raise awareness and ensure that the voting public are fully informed of how our adversaries are trying to manipulate us. At the end of the day, there is really no better defense against Russian aggression on social media than an informed citizenry — a voting public that is fully aware of the Kremlin’s attempts to divide us from within and rejects them.
But social media companies also have a civic responsibility to prevent abuse from proliferating on their platforms and to inform users when they’ve been exposed to it.
We in the U.S. have much to learn about Russian tactics from our allies across the Atlantic who have been, and continue to be, on the front lines of Russian information operations. Vladimir Putin wants to divide us — both internally, here at home, and externally, from our transatlantic friends. Next week, legislators from across the NATO alliance will send him a strong and direct message that it won’t work.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is a member of the Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees. Follow them on Twitter: @MarkWarner and @marcorubio