Noah Berger, AP
In this Tuesday, April 18, file photo, conference workers speak in front of a demo booth at Facebook's annual F8 developer conference, in San Jose, Calif.

Russia’s efforts to influence how Americans vote wouldn’t work if people were media savvy and less susceptible to certain hot-button suggestions.

They wouldn’t gain a foothold in American social media if the internet behemoths that control that media — Facebook, Google and Twitter, especially — were more vigilant in monitoring suspicious accounts.

The latter ought to be fixable. That’s relatively good news, because the former is not, especially given how savvy the saboteurs are becoming.

Two independent studies, commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee, were released this week. Each reached alarming conclusions about the extent to which Russian operatives tried to meddle in the 2016 presidential election.

Missing from the reports were any meaningful analyses on how successful these efforts were. It may be impossible to know this, despite tangential arguments that little-known Green Party candidate Jill Stein, for instance, earned more than 1 percent of the popular vote and that covert social media campaigns had tried to persuade Hillary Clinton supporters to vote for her, instead.

But it shouldn’t be too much to ask that internet companies, the Justice Department, FBI and other agencies begin treating this as the national security threat it is.

These reports were not the first to conclude that Russian groups, including a troll farm called the “Russian Internet Research Agency,” tried to boost Trump and vilify Hillary Clinton. President Trump naturally is concerned about any inference that his victory was less than legitimate, but he shouldn’t downplay future threats to U.S. elections. The reports made it clear that foreign interference campaigns have not stopped.

The reports put Russia’s 2016 efforts into meaningful, and alarming, context. After mainstream media focused on Facebook and Twitter as the source for disinformation campaigns, the focus apparently turned toward Instagram (owned by Facebook).

Internet trolls allegedly would start accounts focused on benign, but popular, topics, such as television shows, then shift to politics after collecting thousands of followers.

Also, the covert campaigns allegedly targeted African-Americans, trying to convince them not to vote by spreading memes designed to paint American democracy as futile or hopeless. They also apparently tried to foment racial tensions.

" Not only should average Americans become savvier, the government should demand greater accountability from Facebook, Google and Twitter.  "

The reports were critical of Facebook for not mentioning the Instagram connection during recent congressional hearings. Covert Russian accounts reportedly attracted thousands of followers on the service, with about 40 percent of fake accounts gaining more than 10,000 followers each. One, @blackstagram, had 303,663 followers, a Bloomberg report said.

Propaganda is not a new tool of warfare. However, social media and the loose nature of the internet allows it to be used in ways that can reach the public more intimately and subtly than at other points in history. Tokyo Rose, for instance, couldn’t dream of gaining the confidence of her listeners the way a deceptively friendly Instagram account might.

Given this, the United States should be acutely aware of the threat and increasingly vigilant, especially as the 2020 presidential race approaches.

41 comments on this story

Not only should average Americans become savvier, the government should demand greater accountability from Facebook, Google and Twitter. We hesitate to advocate a larger government hand in successful private businesses and prefer the companies be more proactive on their own.

When it comes to political influences, much is at stake. If the nation’s enemies succeed in ruining the credibility of U.S. elections, a lack of confidence in its institutions and the authority to govern won’t be far behind.