By Rick Rouan
The Columbus Dispatch
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Government reports agree that Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election, using sophisticated “troll farms” and disinformation campaigns to meddle in the selection of the next U.S. president.
But a full election cycle later, regulators, legal scholars and security experts are still trying to figure out how to fight it — and where it will originate.
“If you aren’t terrified, you aren’t paying attention,” said Ellen Weintraub, a commissioner on the Federal Election Commission. “The question is what, if anything, we can do about it.”
Modern propaganda distributed across social media seeks to “exhaust critical thinking” and “annihilate truth,” Weintraub said during a panel discussion Friday at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.
In 2020, it won’t just come from Russia, she said, noting that intelligence officials are expecting attacks from China, North Korea and others.
Stopping it from happening, though, is complicated, panelists said, because it pits the First Amendment against the need for regulations that would stop erosion of confidence in elections.
“The dilemma we face is that any measures we take to counter disinformation have negative consequences for the freedom of speech” said Yasmin Dawood, a law professor at the University of Toronto who has studied Canada’s approach to combating disinformation.
In 2018, Canada adopted regulations that prohibit publishing misleading information about the country’s elections administration arm and false information about candidates, party leaders and other public figures.
Those restrictions were narrow, though, Dawood said. For example, regulations on distributing false information about individuals were limited to their involvement in a crime, their citizenship, membership in a group and other factors.
If social media platforms adopted their own limitations, that would negate any concerns about government limiting free speech, Weintraub said. So far, though, they have taken little action to stop the disinformation that ran rampant during the 2016 presidential election cycle.
Leaving regulation to the private sector “is unlikely to be enough,” though, said William Marshall, law professor at the University of North Carolina.
Disinformation has real consequences in elections, he said, and that could be enough to swing the argument for government regulation. For example, distributing false information about the date of the election could suppress voter turnout; lies about a candidate could swing votes entirely.
“I think all this false information just normalizes lies. We live in a world many people call post-truth that just accepts it,” he said.
If confronted with stronger laws, Weintraub said, she does not believe the Supreme Court would block them while foreign actors are trying to “get their tentacles into our political system.”
“I believe that the Supreme Court would uphold those laws. I don’t believe that they would say that the Constitution is a suicide pact,” she said.