The biggest challenge from the Mueller report depends on the vigilance of everyone
© The Hill

Many headlines regarding the release of Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerFox News legal analyst says Trump call with Ukraine leader could be 'more serious' than what Mueller 'dragged up' Lewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network MORE’s report have understandably focused on the conduct of President Donald Trump’s campaign during the 2016 election and after.

However, we mustn’t overlook the critical information about Russian election interference that all Americans should carefully examine – and take as a somber warning as another election cycle enters full swing. Doing so would ensure we remain just as susceptible to foreign influence.

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Mueller’s team leaves no question that Russian agents not only interfered in the 2016 election, but that some average Americans inadvertently helped do so. The report confirms these efforts stretch back to 2014, when Russian agents associated with the Internet Research Agency (IRA) first began dabbling in American politics using social media.

Those efforts were initially crude, but that same year several IRA employees traveled to the United States on a “fact-finding mission.” Among other activities, they gathered photos for future use on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to make their posts appear more genuinely American. This trip led to a massive expansion of Russian social media campaigns.

The number of IRA-run social media accounts expanded dramatically and also became more sophisticated. The IRA’s leaders shrewdly realized their propaganda would be most effective if it spanned the U.S. political spectrum. As a result, they created fake accounts presenting a range of political stances, from strong support for the GOP and President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham to introduce resolution condemning House impeachment inquiry Support for impeachment inches up in poll Fox News's Bret Baier calls Trump's attacks on media 'a problem' MORE to backing Black Lives Matter and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — ObamaCare premiums dropping for 2020 | Warren, Buttigieg shift stances on 'Medicare for All' | Drug companies spend big on lobbying Mellman: Trumping peace and prosperity Tlaib to join Sanders at campaign rally in Detroit MORE (I-Vt.).

These efforts attracted tremendous interest from Americans. By the 2016 election, Russian-controlled social media accounts reached 126 million Facebook users. An additional 1.4 million Twitter users may have interacted with IRA-associated accounts, the report states. Some of those interactions came from prominent American political figures and opinion leaders, including major media organizations which quoted Russian posts in their articles suggesting they represented American public opinion.

To expand their reach, the IRA bought ads promoting their groups to the like-minded, presumably using Facebook and Twitter’s ad targeting systems to make sure their messages landed in front of sympathetic audiences.

Some individual Facebook groups yielded memberships in the hundreds of thousands before the platform shut them down in August 2017.

The common thread between all Russian-produced content was creating deliberately provocative and divisive materials designed to turn Americans against one another. These messages were amplified by IRA-controlled “bot farms” of fake accounts that retweeted, liked and reposted these messages and made them appear more popular than they actually were. Americans seeing such posts may well have concluded that such a message was popular and well-received when the actual number of humans who engaged with it could have been relatively small.

Most troubling of all, however, were the ways the Russians turned online activism into real-world activity. Mueller’s report reveals that Russian agents created fake Facebook profiles with American-sounding names, and then contacted real members of the groups asking to help organize a rally supporting the cause. In some cases, the Russians appear to have even agreed to pay for the American target’s expenses setting up and attending the event. 

These Americans unwittingly become the victims and pawns of a Russian plot to undermine American democracy. 

Mueller’s report concludes that the Trump campaign did not conspire or collude with these efforts, a fact which the president has widely touted. But the question remains open of how influential these activities may have been on the election’s outcome.

Attempted foreign interference in American presidential politics is nothing new. In 1940, the Nazis attempted to inject millions of dollars into the presidential campaign to defeat Franklin Roosevelt and install an isolationist president. Those efforts went nowhere. Twenty years later, the Soviet Ambassador made an indiscreet offer to former Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson to help him obtain the party’s nomination. Stevenson wisely declined.

These attempts were made in the era before social media, with relatively few media outlets and limited means to disseminate deliberately misleading or false messages.

In 2016, the Russians influenced American democracy by taking advantage of an emerging media platform generally trusted by millions. Whether those efforts turned the course of the election will never be known. Yet it is no stretch to argue that the current divisiveness of U.S. politics stems at least in part from deliberate and cynical efforts to turn Americans against one another.

The president’s political fate now likely lies with Congress, which will determine what actions, if any, should result from the Mueller report.

More broadly, however, the fate of American democracy lies with the American people.

Americans of all political affiliations must now demand action from lawmakers and social media platforms alike to protect future elections from manipulation by foreign actors. The future integrity of the U.S. political system depends on it.

Bradley W. Hart is assistant professor of media, communications and journalism at California State University, Fresno.