In today’s USA Today, the always perspicacious Eric Wang has a concise and easily-readable explainer about the Russian effort to use social media to exacerbate social tensions in the United States: “Russia isn’t out to decide our elections, they want to divide us and damage our country”.
And his take on the proposed “solutions?” The cure is worse than the disease. Or put another way, those who want to silence Americans’ advocacy discourse in the entirely-mistaken belief that they are preventing some foreign takeover are actually doing what they claim to be defending against.
The reports reveal how the Russian efforts go far beyond election interference. The real goal is outright sabotage by tearing apart America’s social fabric.
Since 2016, states such as New York and Maryland have enacted laws that purport to address Russian interference with U.S. elections. Members of Congress also have justified bills such as the “Honest Ads Act” and “DISCLOSE Act” on this basis. This focus misses the proverbial forest for the trees. As a result, the legislative reaction is misguided and unnecessarily burdens core First Amendment speech. Ironically, these efforts advance Russia’s sabotage.
Most of the legislative response has focused on amending campaign finance laws. The measures propose new reporting, disclaimer and record-keeping requirements for paid online ads that legislators deem to have some tangential relationship with elections.
These far-reaching bills and laws are an extremely poor fit for the Russian threat. They unjustifiably burden Americans’ core First Amendment speech rights. Social media platforms have stopped selling political ads in Maryland and Washington state in response to these laws. The laws’ infirmities make them susceptible to constitutional challenges such as the one brought by several media outlets against the Maryland law, which is pending in a federal court.
Even so, lawmakers cannot address the problem without first correctly identifying it. So far, legislators have failed at even this initial step. Instead, they have rushed to pass laws burdening Americans’ free-speech rights.
This reaction has weakened one of this country’s great strengths and has unwittingly advanced Russia’s agenda.