Could Russia swing the next presidential election?
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We know that the Russians conducted a massive electoral interference operation in the 2016 presidential election, and that they are likely to do so again in 2020. Moreover, we have some data to quantify the scale of Russian interference in 2016. One source reports that Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) generated 67,502 organic posts on Facebook, 116,205 organic posts on Instagram, and more than 8 million posts on Twitter. Facebook users shared IRA posts almost 31 million times and liked IRA posts almost 39 million times. IRA posts on Instagram “garnered almost 185 million likes.”

This quantitative information establishes that Russia succeeded in grabbing the attention of millions of social media users. However, the available data does not answer the most important question: did Russia actually alter the outcome of the 2016 presidential election? 

The honest answer is that we simply do not know. For members of Congress who are drafting legislation to combat Russian interference, the answer matters enormously. Therefore, Congress should act now to fund an independent, nonpartisan task force to measure the actual impact of Russian electoral interference in the upcoming 2020 election.

The following — admittedly, imperfect — analogy highlights the importance of measuring effects. After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the United States made dramatic changes to airport security procedures. Those changes involved major invasions of privacy for some people and significant administrative hassles for all commercial airline passengers. Even so, people accepted the need for drastic changes because the attacks were so obviously destructive. If the United States had thwarted the attacks before they happened, we might still be using the far less intrusive procedures that existed in the 1990s.

As with airport security, the measures that would be most effective in combating Russian electoral interference via social media would likely infringe upon individual privacy rights and create significant administrative hassles for social media users, not to mention possible restrictions on free speech. If we knew that Russia’s election interference campaign actually changed the outcome of a presidential election — even in just one state where the race was extremely close — Congress would have a valid justification for enacting fairly draconian restrictions on social media users to block future Russian interference.

However, absent compelling evidence that Russia actually succeeded in changing electoral outcomes, the American public will rightly resist overly restrictive regulations. Therefore, to design an intelligent legislative response to Russian interference, Congress needs better information about the effect of such interference on electoral outcomes.

Congress should appropriate money now to fund an independent, nonpartisan task force to study the effects of Russian electoral interference in the 2020 election. To obtain useful data, the task force should begin its work six to 12 months before the election. The task force should conduct a detailed survey of eligible voters in several key battleground states, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Survey participants would answer a series of election-related questions on a monthly basis in the months preceding the election, and again after the election. All participants would have to agree to allow task force members to monitor their social media usage for a period of several months.

The legislation should also require major social media companies to cooperate with the task force to facilitate collection of data about social media usage. To ensure collection of the highest-quality data, task force members should include individuals with substantial expertise in social science methodology. 

The American public deserves to know whether Russia’s election interference operation might actually alter election outcomes. If not, any federal regulation of social media platforms designed to combat Russian interference should be executed with a light touch that merely tinkers at the margins. Conversely, if the evidence establishes a significant probability that Russian interference did or could alter election outcomes, Congress would be justified in enacting more intrusive regulations.

Either way, the first step is to collect better data. Congress should act now to collect the information necessary for informed decision-making about the best way to address the ongoing threat to the integrity of electoral democracy in the United States.

David Sloss is the John A. and Elizabeth H. Sutro Professor of Law at Santa Clara University. He is currently writing a book on information warfare and social media.