How should we think about Russian meddling in the 2016 election?
By Scott Sumner
I have trouble making sense of the debate over Russian interference on the 2016 election. I’d like to separate out four distinct issues:
1. Is it bad if foreign governments interfere in US elections?
2. Is it bad if the Russian government interferes in US elections?
3. Is Facebook culpable for allowing Russia to spread fake news on their website?
4. Is the Trump campaign culpable for encouraging Russia to interfere in the US election?
I’m open to having my mind changed, but right now I see the answers as no, yes, no and yes.
1. As with terrorism, I judge foreign election interference on utilitarian grounds. If the US kills 100,000 people in a terrorist act in order to save a million people, that’s justifiable (unless the million could have been saved without the terrorism.) Most real world terrorism is bad not because innocent people get killed (even soldiers are “innocent”), rather because terrorist groups such as ISIS are fighting for evil causes.
If Canada runs TV ads saying, “Vote for Hillary, because Trump will destroy NAFTA and hurt the US economy”, that’s a perfectly respectable example of free speech in action. It would probably be politically foolish (or at least would have been when I was younger, as Americans once resented this sort of outside interference.) Thus Canada probably would not run this sort of TV commercial because it would backfire.
2. In contrast, if a militarily aggressive authoritarian government interferes by supporting a candidate who will remove from their party platform a plank that criticizes that regime’s invasion of another country, and also try to destabilize Western Europe, then the interference is a bad thing. Again, in the past that sort of interference would have backfired, as Americans would have resented election interference by a bad actor. Remember the McCarthy era? It was once a scandal to be seen as under Russian influence.
In my view, Russian election interference was a bad thing because they were trying to get the US government to support their evil policies, not because foreign election interference is inherently a bad thing.
3. What about media platforms? In my view, if a foreign government opts to run campaign commercials on TV, the networks should allow it to do so. The Facebook issue is more troublesome, as (unlike with campaign commercials) the source of the fake news was not identified. Even so, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s Facebook’s job to police everything said on its platform. Rather, the Democrats should have made an issue about this interference. Hopefully, next time they will do so.
Unfortunately, most voters don’t seem to agree with me. Polls should that most voters are not too upset with Russian election interference:
And yet, only 45 percent of survey respondents said outside influence from foreign governments is a major problem in American elections, along starkly partisan lines: 68 percent of Democrats versus only 22 percent of Republicans, and 40 percent of independents.
However one feels about this issue, one thing seems clear. If voters are not upset enough to hold the Trump Administration accountable, then it makes absolutely no sense to hold Facebook accountable. Any sins of omission committed by Facebook are trivial compared to the sin of a major political campaign encouraging Russian interference.
4. If the Trump campaign did attempt to encourage Russian meddling, that would reflect poorly on the Trump campaign. Nonetheless, in a free country, with free press and democratic elections, this scandal should be treated as a political problem, not a legal matter. I do understand that scandals almost always do get swept up in legal issues, such as perjury, or failing to report campaign spending, etc., but the Russian interference itself should be viewed as a political scandal. If the voters don’t want to punish it, that’s their prerogative.
Don’t take this post as a comment on the Mueller investigation, which is looking at obstruction of justice and all sorts of other separate issues. My goal here is to defend Facebook, which may well end up suffering more sanctions than the Trump administration. The voters should be demanding much higher ethics from politicians than from profit-maximizing corporations, not much lower ethics.
You may wonder if I have any evidence that the Trump campaign encouraged the Russians to interfere in the 2016 election. It so happens I do:
Donald Trump appeared to call on Russian intelligence agencies Wednesday to find 30,000 of Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails, adding a stunning twist to the uproar over Moscow’s alleged intervention in the presidential election.”
They probably have her 33,000 e-mails. I hope they do. They probably have her 33,000 e-mails that she lost and deleted because you’d see some beauties there. So let’s see,” Trump said at a news conference in Florida.
He was referring to emails on the personal server that Clinton used to conduct official business as secretary of state but that she deemed private and did not hand over to the State Department.
The GOP nominee’s comments sparked an immediate furor at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, as well as claims by Clinton’s campaign that Trump was endangering national security and even conspiring with a U.S. foe. Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta denounced Trump’s “irresponsible” comments from the convention floor, saying that the presidential candidate “asked the Russians to interfere in American politics.”
The voters knew all this before the election. They didn’t care.
PS. Tyler Cowen recently linked to a NYT article that suggests Taiwanese voters are equally indifferent to outside interference in their elections. (I say “outside” rather than “foreign”, as Taiwan’s constitution affirms that it is technically a part of China, although it is of course de facto self-governing.) There’s no doubt in my mind that one could find similar indifference in Europe and elsewhere. People just don’t care.