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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Get tough on election tampering / Gary McCoy / Gary McCoy Credit: / Gary McCoy

Karl Marx, meet Karl Rove.

That’s the new reality staring at us from the East. It’s no longer Marxism we need to fear, it’s brains, bots and trolls (and not the type that hang out under a bridge).

This new international threat is far bigger than any investigation into Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. If the president’s team conspired with the Russians, he’ll be impeached and his lieutenants will do jumping jacks at federal prison. But the Russians will still be in business. So will the Chinese, the Iranians, the Islamic State, the North Koreans and anyone else with an internet connection, a laptop and readily available U.S. voter data.

People keep saying Moscow tampered with the 2016 U.S. election. The reality is much more interesting, I’m afraid. Growing evidence suggests that Moscow was an actual player in the election, not just an interferer. It fielded a top-notch political consulting team that acted as if it were an independent expenditure committee backing one candidate over another. And there was nothing we could do about it. The internet is wide open.

It was genius, really. If an American political action committee can create algorithms to route positive or negative news stories to targeted voters, why can’t Russian agents?

That’s apparently what they did, with electronic “bot” blasts that pushed negative stories on Hillary Clinton and positive stories on Trump, many of them dubious, to Americans in key election districts. Those people doing it seemed to know exactly which voters could turn a state electorally. And here’s the really scary thing: They wouldn’t have needed help from the Trump campaign to know this. Anyone who understands modern election methods can figure it out, or hire someone who knows how to push information right to screens. This type of targeting is used in races for village dogcatcher now. It’s used to sell soap.

Moscow also employed “trolls” throughout the 2016 campaign, evidently. These were English-speaking employees who pushed back on anti-Trump news coverage by commenting on blogs, online news stories, Twitter and other social media platforms. Readers assumed these comments were coming from Fresno or Peoria, when many were coming from the Kremlin, investigators now believe.

This isn’t the first time foreign agents have hacked into a U.S. election. The FBI has said that hackers linked to the Chinese government hacked the John McCain and Barack Obama campaign computers in the 2008 presidential election. But what the Russians appear to have done in 2016 marks a new era.

The federal investigation into Trump campaign links to Russia matters a great deal. It’s important that we get to the bottom of it. But we must not lose sight of the bigger issue: How can we keep this from happening in future elections?

The fact is that we cannot. Not physically — not unless we plan to shut down the internet.

If the Trump administration truly has nothing to worry about, it should triple or quadruple the sanctions imposed on Russia by President Obama after the election. We might not be able to put a wall around the internet, but we sure can send a message: Play in our elections at your own severe risk.

The 2018 midterms are approaching. They are wide open to manipulation, and now everyone knows it.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.


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