This editorial ran in the Dec. 17, 2018, edition of the Chicago Sun-Times.
The presidential election of 2016 will always include an asterisk.
We will never know with certainty who would have won the election had it not been for Russian interference. All we can do is take measures to thwart such meddling in the future, in part by raising a new generation of wised-up Americans who know how to think critically about what they read and hear, especially on social media.
The fact that Russia ran a covert social media campaign to sway the election has not been in doubt for a long time. But two new reports, prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee, describe a broader and more sophisticated campaign than previously understood.
The conclusions of the two reports beg the question of whether key swing states, such as Wisconsin and Florida, still would have gone for Donald Trump had it not been for Russia's relentless effort to tilt the playing field. It is entirely reasonable to doubt they would have, and that doubt is corrosive to our democracy. If you're Russian President Vladimir Putin, you're thrilled.
The two new reports reveal that Russia's effort to influence the election went well beyond postings — all designed to boost Trump — under fake names on Twitter and Facebook. Russia's effort also swept forward on Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Google+. The postings aimed to sow dissent and divide the American people against each other, pitting blacks against whites, Bernie Sanders voters against Hillary Clinton voters, and religious people against the nonreligious.
In all, the Russian assault included more than 10 million tweets, more than 1,000 YouTube videos, about 116,000 Instagram posts and more than 60,000 Facebook posts.
A common strategy of the Russian trolls was to build up an audience by creating a benign social media account that grew sinister over time. For example, as the New York Times reported, the Russians created an account called @army—of—jesus that at first showed images from The Muppet Show. Then it shifted to The Simpsons. Then, after a full year of developing a following, it began posting content that associated Jesus with Trump and Satan with Hillary Clinton.
The two reports to the Senate also make clear that Russia's trolling campaign continues even now, in support of Trump and against any talk of impeachment.
To counter such attacks on the American political process, Congress first must hold social media companies accountable for failing to guard against foreign influences. One of the two reports, produced by the cybersecurity company New Knowledge, indicates that tech companies may not have been fully cooperative with congressional committees investigating Russian interference.
Secondly, the Dark Money Age must end. Congress should pass laws requiring full transparency in who's financing political ads and political groups. The American people have a right to know who's trying to spin them.
Thirdly, media literacy education should be made standard in schools. Americans must do a better job of sizing up the deluge of information that gushes out of their computers and smart phones each day, sorting what is true and proportionate from what is biased, overhyped and false. It begins with a rule of thumb: Consider the source.
Toward that end, Illinois and other states should follow the lead of Massachusetts, which last month passed a law bolstering civic education. Among the changes, schools in Massachusetts now must teach their students "skills to access, analyze and evaluate written and digital media as it relates to history and civics."
Nothing in the two reports to the Senate addresses the possibility that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, but that wasn't the job assigned to the authors. That would be the job of special counsel Robert Mueller, who has gathered a wealth of evidence of high-level communications between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.
More than ever, Mueller must be allowed to see that job through, with no time constraints.