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In our opinion: 2020 campaign disinformation must be exposed

Campaigns of both parties need to cultivate a culture that says it’s wrong to take advantage of falsehoods, even when spread by someone else.

AP

Political parties are the first line of defense against disinformation campaigns and voter suppression efforts, and the campaigns of both parties need to cultivate a culture that says it’s wrong to take advantage of falsehoods, even when spread by someone else.

That’s one of the conclusions of an essay published last week by the Brooking Institution and written by Elaine Kamarck, the founding director of the institution’s Center for Effective Public Management. Large election campaigns have workers who monitor social media so they can quickly respond to attacks. They monitor their opponents, as well.

Campaigns are bound to be far ahead of law enforcement or government agencies that might be looking for unusual activity, Kamarck argues.

The premise is good. Campaigns have their fingers on the pulse of election-related activity. But whether they can be counted on to expose falsehoods that target their opponents is an open question. History suggests that campaigns are not always prone to expose lies. They often use them to their advantage.

John F. Kennedy repeatedly warned about a missile gap, in which the Soviet Union supposedly had more nuclear missiles than the United States, during the 1960 election. After assuming office, his administration had to acknowledge the gap didn’t exist.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson waged a memorable battle of insults in the election of 1800, with Jefferson paying an editor to publish inflammatory articles about Adams.

Those are only two examples.

But while any falsehood is serious, clearly there is a difference between that kind of lie and a computer hack or a vicious rumor spread by a foreign source, such as a Russian agent. Any attempt by a potential enemy to influence the nation’s electoral process is a matter of national security.

The heads of eight separate U.S. intelligence agencies have said Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Most recently, a report by special counsel Robert Mueller concluded the same thing, and warned that those efforts are continuing into 2020.

Evidence suggests the efforts in 2016 were aimed at benefiting Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, although no credible evidence exists to suggest they actually changed the final results. President Trump has been reluctant to give credence to these reports, most likely because he worries they might tarnish his victory in 2016. The political pitfalls of confronting outside influences may be the biggest impediment to hoping that campaigns will police the problem themselves.

The Democratic Party has passed a resolution pledging to not take advantage of illegally obtained information and to report any indications someone is attacking the electoral process. Republicans have not.

But resolutions only go so far in the cutthroat world of political power.

The nation’s best, most reliable defenses are its law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and they are making assurances that steps are being taken to safeguard elections systems. That will require candor and cooperation with county election leaders and states, as well.

The genius of the American election system is the way it is divided into thousands of separate county elections. That also can be its weakness, however, as enemies may tactically focus on only a few counties where small changes could have the biggest influence.

As for disinformation campaigns through social media, those will require public vigilance as well as dogged media reporting. Alerts from campaigns would help, as well.

Running competitive elections while guarding against undo influences is a tricky business. It will require the concerted efforts of the entire nation, and the realization that, ultimately, national security is more important than who wins.