Before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the idea of turning civilian airplanes into weapons was inconceivable to most. And until it was discovered that Russian President Vladimir Putin had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, it was unimaginable that social media platforms could be weaponized to undermine U.S. democracy. But unlike the reflective bipartisan process that followed 9/11, the task of addressing U.S. vulnerabilities to Russian meddling remains mired in debates about what actually happened.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll farm, underscores the significant role that social media played in Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election. Although this was an important and welcome step, Americans cannot simply look backward. The social media companies whose platforms were exploited must take action to close off the vulnerabilities that Putin and others have exposed and continue to exploit. Russia’s efforts to undermine U.S. democracy, including via social media, continue today. Taking proactive steps to address vulnerabilities that Putin is exploiting is the best way for these platforms to regain the trust of the American people and avoid government overregulation.
THE WEAPONIZATION OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Social media platforms, which are often used for political campaigns and by advertisers, have provided Putin with a powerful weapon to take Cold War KGB propaganda tactics from analog to digital. Attempts to interfere in elections are just one part of a broader strategy to weaken democracies by exploiting divisions, sowing chaos, and casting doubt on institutions.
For many Americans, Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election may seem distant and abstract, or just another front in the online battle of ideas. But in reality, Russia’s operations influenced real people to take action offline, unwittingly in service of Russia’s interests of turning Americans against one another. Consider the tale of two rallies in Houston, Texas, on May 21, 2016, where Americans inspired by posts on Facebook showed up to protest outside an Islamic center.
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