Be a wary reader in the 2024 election

Though the Soviet Union is long gone, America still seems to be crawling with useful idiots, Westerners who aid Moscow out of ignorance or naiveté.
Though the Soviet Union is long gone, America still seems to be crawling with useful idiots, Westerners who aid Moscow out of ignorance or naiveté.


Disinformation from Russia and China is evolving and has even spread to Capitol Hill.

As Speaker Mike Johnson maneuvered last week to bring Ukraine aid up for a vote, two respected House committee chairmen made a disturbing acknowledgment: Russian disinformation has helped undermine support for Ukraine among some Republicans.

Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul admitted that “Russian propaganda has made its way into the United States" and “infected a good chunk of my party’s base." Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner said “anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia messages" have been “uttered on the House floor."

To get a sense of the magnitude of the problem, consider one truly ludicrous fiction that GOP lawmakers parroted: that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky diverted U.S. aid to purchase two super yachts. The accusation surfaced in DC Weekly, a Russian website masquerading as a U.S. media organization. It’s one of many sites aimed at Americans tied to the media network of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin went down in a private jet crash last August, but his troll farm appears alive and well.

Though the Soviet Union is long gone, America still seems to be crawling with useful idiots, Westerners who aid Moscow out of ignorance or naiveté. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.) and Sen. J.D. Vance (R., Ohio) were among those who repeated the super-yacht charge. Neither has set the record straight or admitted being hoodwinked.

Thanks to social media, false information spreads quicker and further. An anonymous Twitter user claimed earlier this month that large numbers of people had registered to vote in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Texas without a photo ID, suggesting they could be illegal aliens. Arizona and Texas election officials quickly denounced this as false, but were too late to keep Ms. Greene, Donald Trump and Elon Musk from drawing attention to the inaccurate posting. It has 64 million views and counting.

America has been wrestling for years with foreign adversaries’ efforts to sow discord online. In 2016, many mistook the Twitter account TEN_GOP for that of the Tennessee Republican Party. Though the profile featured the Volunteer State’s seal, it was really run by the Internet Research Agency, a media warfare group Prigozhin founded. The account poured out anti-immigrant, racist and anti-Muslim messages. It tricked members of the Trump team and family, who retweeted and cited its posts. Despite repeated complaints from the actual Tennessee Republican Party, Twitter took its time closing the account, finally shuttering it in August 2017.

Russia, Iran, China and North Korea and their proxies are undoubtedly working overtime online to influence this election. They seek to pit Americans against each other, spread lies, and undermine confidence in our politics, government and institutions. It’s hard to stop them, but there are ways to diminish their effectiveness.

JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon raised one possibility this month in his annual shareholders letter. He suggested platforms should “consider enhanced authentication measures" requiring users to “identify themselves to the platform or to a trusted third party." This would reduce “impostors, bots and possibly foreign political actors." He acknowledged that the stricter the authentication process, the greater the likelihood it could “chill or block speech." But Mr. Dimon suggested platforms could avoid this with tailored “policy and technical solutions" that balance “risks and benefits."

Platforms are already working the problem’s edges. Meta took down at least five Chinese fake account networks last year. One had 4,800 Facebook accounts impersonating real people—including Reps. Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Jim Jordan (R., Ohio)—with content on politics and U.S.-China relations. Still, Russia appears to be most actively involved in spreading disinformation. One newly discovered Moscow operation—called “Doppelganger"—copies content from regular media companies, then alters them slightly to undermine Western democracies.

A Sept. 25 Ipsos poll conducted in 16 countries that have elections this year shows the scope of the challenge: Social media is the primary or secondary news source for 56% of those surveyed, with television second at 44% and websites and apps third at 29%.

Even so, users told Ipsos that they consider social media the second most untrustworthy information source. Only group chats on apps like WhatsApp or Telegram are more distrusted. But given disinformation’s still-substantial influence, it seems both voters and platforms should wise up more. Rigorous authentication of new accounts is an essential step, but much more must be done. Our democracy’s health depends on it.

Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is author of “The Triumph of William McKinley" (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

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