Americans are no strangers to populist preening on Capitol Hill. So it’s unfortunately not surprising to see the current populist-driven assault on social media companies due to the Russian attempt to influence the 2016 elections. After a week of disappointing Congressional hearings on the “role” of tech in “enabling” Russian meddling, we can only hope our leaders strike a more thoughtful and nuanced posture to combating this threat — one that positions our government and intelligence agencies as leaders in solving this problem with the assistance of private companies, not the other way around.
Disinformation has long been a Russian strategy to meddle with U.S. elections and our views of government. In the 1940s and '50s, the Soviets used international media to spread their propaganda. By 1980, the Soviets were spending $3 billion per year on propaganda. It even turns out that the Russians were likely the drivers behind some of the more interesting rumors about AIDS as well as President John F. Kennedy's assassination. They made outlandish claims, but somehow those claims got traction even before social media.
The government has been vigilant in working to stop this meddling for the last 80 years, but with new revelations about a Russian influence campaign targeting Americans on social media platforms, some in Congress are relinquishing their role in policing global threats. Instead, they are looking to place blame on someone else — social media companies themselves. That is how populism works.
In a marathon of hearings this week, Congress presumed to learn from Facebook, Twitter, and Google about what the companies had seen on their platforms during the election, and how the government could partner with them to combat purposeful foreign electoral influence. But after listening to some of the “questions” the hearings seemed to be more focused on holding Facebook and Twitter accountable for the failings of big government, instead of figuring out how the government can do a better job of stopping this meddling in the future.
In Wednesday’s Senate Intelligence hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said, “What we are talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare” and “[tech companies] have to be the ones to do something about it.” This is backwards. The tech companies have demonstrated that they will support government efforts to stop foreign meddling — but they shouldn’t be forced to or expected to lead it.
National security is the purview of the federal government, not private companies.
Facebook and Twitter have now been raked over the coals for weeks by difficult press coverage, some of which they might deserve, and now they are getting the same treatment by Democrats in Congress. Congress should be working to incentivize companies to grow and create jobs instead of placing the blame on them. Congress spends more than half a trillion dollars on defense every year – you would think that they might be able to out-Twitter the Russians.
But harsh criticism of social media companies seems more like a convenient political message than an attempt to understand the truth and actually stem the tide of propaganda.
Congress must remain vigilant against Russian propaganda, and our intelligence agencies must lead the fight against foreign electioneering, but to do so they should focus on the root of the problem rather than demonizing private companies.
At least one senator, Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., was willing to push back against the demand for a populist victim-shaming and urged everyone to take a deep breath and consider the complexity of policing problematic online speech on a global scale.
Others would be wise to follow his lead, consider the role of government in fighting global “cyber warfare,” and strike a balance between cracking down on foreign online influence and preserving the freedom of online expression. The political posturing on Capitol Hill suggests many of our elected representatives have a lot to learn.
Charles Sauer (@CharlesSauer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is president of the Market Institute and previously worked on Capitol Hill, for a governor, and for an academic think tank.
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