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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Don’t be confused. This is the real Russian scandal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump meet in July at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Credit: EPA / Sputnik / Michael Klimentyev

Let’s talk about Russia.

Many people are. But last week’s sturm und drang wasn’t terribly productive. Then came Friday’s revelation that the first charges had been filed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

That cut through the political roar and reminded everyone that the real problem with the 2016 election was the extent to which Russia infiltrated and tried to influence it, and the certainty that country will continue to do so in the future.

Friday’s reveal was more telling than news that a lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign paid the firm that hired the former British intelligence officer who produced the now-infamous dossier about then-candidate Donald Trump’s connections to Russia.

GOP outrage was precious, because where was the anger over the Republican donor who commissioned the report before pulling out when Trump won the party’s nomination? Campaign opposition research is a rough business, as Trump acknowledged when he used the term to describe his son’s meeting with a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Clinton.

The Mueller news was bigger than the resurfacing of an old controversy centered on Clinton’s role as secretary of state in the sale of a U.S. uranium company that involved Russia and donations to the Clinton Foundation. Check out Politifact’s insightful analysis of this imbroglio. It leaves one thinking that more investigation and reporting might be warranted but that it’s not the scandal described Friday by White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

It even topped news that the Trump campaign’s data analytics company reached out to WikiLeaks seeking access to emails from Clinton’s private server, about the time WikiLeaks released Democratic National Committee emails hacked by Russian operatives.

Yes, I want an answer to whether Trump or his people colluded with Russians. But how about we wait for Mueller to unveil the indictments and finish his investigation before drawing breathless conclusions?

But even Trump-proof, if there is any, might not provide the best spotlight on Russia’s actions in 2016 — a far bigger threat to our democracy than the shenanigans of any particular campaign. A sharper focus hopefully comes Wednesday, when the Senate and House intelligence committees hold hearings on the role played by Facebook, Google and Twitter in facilitating Russia’s influence grab.

A lot is known already about Russia’s campaign. Some of the raw material:

  • Facebook found 3,000 ads that violated its own policies and were linked to Russian accounts. Twitter acknowledged more than 200 such ads on its site. Google found Russia-linked ads on several platforms, including YouTube and Gmail.
  • Russian operatives were remarkably adept at using social media to exploit America’s divisions on race, immigration and LGBTQ rights. One Russian campaign pretending to be part of the Black Lives Matter movement used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and Pokemon Go to highlight alleged police brutality and inflame American discord on the topic.
  • The disinformation campaign included websites, Facebook messages and a fake Twitter account retweeted by, among others, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, actor James Woods, commentator Anne Coulter, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, and presidential son Donald Trump Jr. to their hordes of followers.
  • Election officials in many states, Democratic and Republican, are working to make voting more secure by next year’s midterms after federal officials notified 21 states that Russians tried to hack their election systems in 2016.

Russia’s intrusion is no hoax. Many questions remain. They won’t all be answered in the hearings, these charges or the political furor to follow. It’s going to be a long haul.

Keep your eye on the ball, the real ball. It’s red, as in Russian.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.