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In our opinion: Russian meddling in elections is cause for serious concern

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during his annual news conference in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.
Alexei Nikolsky, Associated Press

Last week, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. This is the first major action to come from the ongoing investigation into the extent that Russia interfered in the American democratic process, and it solidifies both the reality and the severity of the threat to democracy posed by Russian cyber attacks. In light of this, legislators should take this opportunity to meaningfully heed the advice of senior intelligence leadership who said last week that the government must steel itself for future attacks — specifically in the 2018 midterm elections.

Those attacks could come sooner than some think. Recently, senior intelligence leadership testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia is already meddling in the 2018 midterm elections. While this briefing from CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on “worldwide threats” received minimal media attention, the gravity of this information should not be overlooked.

Intelligence leaders identified the two greatest challenges for America and Western democracies across Europe: combatting Russia’s misinformation campaign and ensuring the security of electoral systems. The Russian government seems to have embarked on a widespread influence campaign to fundamentally undermine trust in American institutions. According to Coats, Russia is “using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States.”

Pompeo said Russian bots are waging information “warfare” against the United States. And according to Bloomberg, Twitter identified about 2.12 million automated, election-related tweets from Russian-linked accounts during the 2016 election. These tweets “collectively received about 455 million impressions within the first seven days of posting.” Unfortunately, the misinformation campaigns work — and the information warfare waged by these bots often go undetected by social media users, further fueling partisan divisions. According to Pew Research Center data, 64 percent of Americans said they felt “a great deal of confusion” trying to parse truth from falsehoods being shared on social media.

With Russia undeterred and emboldened by its meddling in the 2016 election, now is the moment for Congress to take seriously the threat posed to both American national security and the stability of democratic societies around the world (intelligence leadership suggested that Eastern European elections were under attack as well). This interference should be seen for what it is: a sophisticated, 21st century form of interstate aggression and information warfare.

A good first step is for U.S. political parties to affirm their trust in the reliability and veracity of the independent counsel — restoring the belief that the government maintains effective checks and balances. Then, the full weight of Congress and the administration must unite to identify and articulate the threat posed by the Russian government, supporting efforts to counter its misinformation campaign and shoring up the security of electoral systems in the process. To do anything else, particularly to engage in partisan squabbling over the issue, only means that Russia wins this cyber war.