Direct quote

I cannot speak for the incumbent president, but it may have endangered the midterms and 2020 election by impeding negotiation with Russia. I have always been unsettled by the content of the following report, which is essentially impossible to reconcile with popular mainstream media narratives. Note that 'domestic political challenges' appears as a reason for rejecting any sweeping mutual non-interference agreement, side by side with a 'high cost to U.S. activities abroad.' Mueller's investigation has been used for political ends, beyond his control, and as a foundation for what I consider reckless behavior from his political opponents and the media. I am no fan of the incumbent president, but feel both his misdeeds and those of Russia fail to justify the behavior of many of his attackers, which possibly obscure even greater influences of concern (in terms of impact): Donald Trump Rode $5 Billion in Free Media to the White House, which are also essentially impossible to reconcile with mainstream media narratives.

RAND: Countering Russian Social Media Influence { PDF page 45 | source doc: 27 }'

Negotiate an Agreement with Russia

The final approach to shaping Russia’s decision making would be coming to a shared agreement with Russia to limit its aggressive activities. One participant recommended that the United States “deal diplomatically with the Russians and try to resolve the issues that push them to pursue these campaigns”—e.g., the Ukraine crisis, the conflict in Syria, and other areas of contention between the United States and Russia. This type of comment reflects a perspective expressed by several participants that Russia’s motivation for undertaking aggressive actions on social media reflects its dissatisfaction with a wider range of U.S. policy. One participant suggested that punishment and diplomacy could be combined—economic sanctions could be used as a lever to “nudge Russia to become a bit more economically unstable, which could foster a pressing concern in the Kremlin and bring them to the table.” In some respects, an agreement represents a bilateral, formalized version of the previous norm-setting approach, because it would involve a mutually agreed-upon policy to prohibit some activities and legitimize others.

Russia has already proposed two diplomatic efforts that would limit its interference. BuzzFeed reported that, in July 2017, Russia proposed “a sweeping noninterference agreement between Moscow and Washington that would prohibit both governments from meddling in the other’s domestic politics.” This proposal was built, in part, on the history of the U.S.-Soviet relationship: Specifically, in 1933, the United States agreed to recognize the Soviet Union, in exchange for a pledge by the Soviet Union not to interfere in U.S. politics. However, U.S. officials reportedly responded to the July proposal with “thank you very much, but now is not the time for this”; this response was likely in part because of domestic political challenges in the United States and the high cost to U.S. activities abroad. One U.S. official explained that the agreement would involve “[giving] up democracy promotion in Russia, which we’re not willing to do.” By April 2018, Russian officials had declined to “give any unilateral statements or assurances” that they would not interfere in the 2018 midterm elections in the United States. Russia has previously explored diplomatic solutions to information activities in the form of the Russian and Chinese-backed International Code of Conduct for Information Security, which sought to regulate the flow of information across borders in a way that Western countries found to be a “threat to fundamental human rights.”

The potential advantage of an agreement limiting future information operations is that it might indeed reduce Russia’s activities. Protecting against social media influence could be a foreign policy for which there is no easy defense, so mutual agreement might be a desirable outcome. However, there are at least three potential disadvantages and risks of a diplomatic policy. First, from a domestic political point of view, an agreement with Russia might be impractical, given the widely held view that Russia was the aggressor in the 2016 disinformation campaign. An agreement would also create a degree of moral equivalence with U.S. activities in Russia and Russian activities in the United States, which many Americans would find inappropriate. Second, an agreement with Russia would, most likely, involve cutting back desirable U.S. foreign policy activities, especially democracy promotion. However, the impact of cutting back democracy promotion could be minimal: There are few such activities, some of those activities might not be suspended, and ongoing activities are not perceived to be particularly effective at accomplishing major changes in Russian policy. Third, Russia might not abide by such an agreement, and verification could be difficult. Even though it could be difficult to verify that Russia is not interfering in U.S. elections in real time, there may be tell-tale signs of Russian influence that can be observed in retrospect and responded to, which may alleviate some of the verification challenges.

Participants highlighted the need to improve U.S. government coordination to make any and all of these policies more effective. Any of these policies, but especially the punishment one, require clear communication across the U.S. government about what particular activities mean and which actors undertake them. To this end, one participant argued for “an NSC [National Security Council]–level directorate that focuses on strategy coordination.” Closer coordination with allies was also cited as important, although the precise impact of coordinated allied behavior, rather than just U.S. activities, remains uncertain.

Italicized emphasis added.

RAND: Truth Decay { PDF page 149 | source doc: 125 }'

As we have noted elsewhere, it remains unclear to what extent disinformation disseminated by Russian-backed and other sources during the 2016 presidential election cycle was able to affect individual voter positions or influence the way they voted. Most empirical research suggests that the effect of this effort was likely not prodigious. One study determined that, “for fake news to have changed the outcome of the election, a single fake article would need to have had the same persuasive effect as 36 television campaign ads.” However, although disinformation might not have changed preexisting beliefs, it could have influenced the initial formation of opinions. An assessment of the 2004 election, for instance, found that media bias and spin in the coverage of candidates prior to the election did indeed affect voter assessments of the candidates. Thus, disinformation in almost any form becomes a driver of Truth Decay because it obscures the distinction between opinion and fact and massively inflates the amount of false information, effectively drowning out facts and objective analysis in some cases.

Italicized emphasis added.

For clarity, I do believe Russia meddled and that meddling represents a grave threat. I separate the offense from its influence, and consider the offense severe.

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