Elections Watchdog Warns of Midterm Meddling

Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after a closed-door meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

(CN) – The Campaign Legal Center said in a report released Wednesday that U.S. elections are still vulnerable to foreign interference and the group called on Congress, federal agencies and social media companies to take action to prevent meddling in this year’s midterm races.

“From flooding Facebook with carefully targeted paid advertisements to hacking [Democratic National Committee] servers to breaking into state voting records to quiet meetings in Trump Tower, we are learning that Russia employed a torrent of strategies to intervene in our elections,“ CLC President Trevor Potter said Wednesday during a conference call about the group’s report. “Just 10 months away from our next federal elections this year, it’s important for all of us to recognize these threats and think proactively about how to protect against them. Otherwise these types of actions and more threaten to undermine our democracy indefinitely.”

Speakers on the conference call discussed the 48-page report, which stems from a CLC conference held last year where legal experts, academics, journalists and practitioners from various disciplines met to discuss foreign interference in U.S. elections.

According to the report, the digital age poses new problems for campaign-finance laws and disclosure requirements, which became evident through secret foreign spending on digital political ads and the dissemination of social media messages through automated “bots” during the 2016 presidential election.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have been under fire for foreign-generated content connected to Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign, in which Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton to win the presidency.

Multiple investigations are now looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, including probes in Congress and one headed by special counsel Robert Mueller.

“The role of Facebook in particular in thwarting transparency legislation and regulation over the past several couple years can’t be understated,” CLC Program Director Brendan Fischer said. “For example, one reason we’ve had so many problems  with the application of disclaimer requirements to online political ads is because of an advisory opinion request that Facebook sought from the FEC in 2011 that helped create ambiguity that Russian actors exploited in the 2016 election in order to circulate political ads without any sort of transparency.”

The CLC report says the Federal Election Commission and internet platforms need to fill the “digital gap” in campaign-finance laws and require political advertisers to be transparent and identify themselves to voters.

The group urged Congress to pass the bipartisan Honest Ads Act, which would require disclaimers and disclosure of digital ads that mention a candidate shortly before an election, just like TV and newspaper ads.

Social media bot activity also needs to be researched more, according to the report.

“The emerging trend of fake social media accounts and automated bots to disseminate political messages presents vexing challenges for policymakers and social media companies alike,” the report states. “There must be a careful assessment as to which elements of bot policy should be within the control of government and which should be left to self-regulation. More research is certainly needed on how political actors spend money to disseminate messages through bots or other forms of automation.”

The CLC also focused on the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, a 5-4 ruling that found the government cannot restrict political spending by corporations and unions.

The elections watchdog says the Citizens United decision has undermined American democracy and notes that at least $800 million in “dark money” has been spent on U.S. elections since 2010.

Wednesday’s report advocates the importance of viewing foreign election interference as a national priority to defend American democracy and calls for an effort to secure and modernize voting equipment and election infrastructure as a proactive measure.

“Just because we were attacked one way in 2016 doesn’t mean we’ll be attacked the same way in 2018,” Max Bergmann of the Center for American Progress said in the conference call.

The CLC notes that addressing threats to U.S. elections and democracy is not the job of any single entity.

“Congress must react to these threats and also be proactive in anticipating future vulnerabilities. The FEC must do its job in enforcing the law, which includes responding to new challenges presented by the digital age. Internet companies must fully come to terms with the power of their platforms and work with government to protect against those seeking to do our democracy harm. And we all must ensure that voters have the tools to critically evaluate digital information,” the report states.

“Unless all of these actors begin to work toward solutions, there is every reason to believe that the actual or attempted foreign meddling of 2016 will become a much greater threat in elections to come,” it continues.

Founded in 2002, the CLC is a Washington D.C.-based nonpartisan, nonprofit that advocates for American democracy through litigation, policy analysis and public education.

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