This week Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, is being grilled by Members of Congress over his company’s unintentional complicity in releasing millions of Facebook users’ information and facilitating foreign interests meddling in America’s 2016 elections. Members of Congress might score political points for blasting the tech giant (cue the angry face emoji), but their attacks on Zuckerberg for failing to protect the integrity of American democracy are the height of hypocrisy. The fact is that Facebook has already acted to correct its serious mistake and make future ads on the platform much more transparent, while Congress has done almost nothing to protect American democracy from foreign interference.
Sure, the recently passed government funding bill included $380 million to help states improve election systems, but that’s a drop in the bucket of what’s needed to defend the US political process from undue foreign influence. Congress still hasn’t passed a single law to make much-needed reforms to US laws governing foreign interference in the US political process, whose glaring weaknesses were exploited in the 2016 elections.
This is not for lack of opportunity or interest amongst Members of Congress. A plethora of bills have been introduced that would make much-needed reforms to protect future elections. Most recently, Representatives Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) introduced the bipartisan Countering Foreign Propaganda Act, which would require television networks run by foreign governments to let audiences know who is funding the programs they’re watching, a proposal not unlike Facebook’s new commitment to include funding sources on all political ads.
Certainly, Facebook has made mistakes, but the onus to protect American democracy is on Congress, not Facebook.
But, the Countering Foreign Propaganda Act is treading a trail all foreign influence bills have traveled since the 2016 elections—a trail to nowhere. No proposed bill to combat undue foreign influence has become law. In fact, just one of these bills has garnered a Congressional hearing, and since that hearing, it too has gone nowhere. It now seems increasingly likely that Congress will not pass any legislation to defend American democracy from foreign interference before the 2018 elections.
Some might argue Congressional action isn’t necessary because indictments by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team “gave bite” to the previously nearly unenforced Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Now “firms are suddenly registering their foreign lobbying,” according to the Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay. And, the facts bear this out. In just the last six months, Mueller has more than tripled the number of individuals the Department of Justice has accused of violating FARA in the last 50 years. And, this increase in enforcement does appear to be leading to an increase in compliance. Specifically, from October 28, 2017 (the day before Mueller released the indictments of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates) to April 1, 58 new firms registered under FARA, whereas just 28 new firms registered during the same time period a year prior.
There is, however, a glaring problem with the idea that Mueller’s indictments have solved the problem of undue foreign influence by increasing FARA enforcement and compliance: Mueller is temporary and America’s foreign influence laws remain abysmal. Mueller’s investigation will eventually end, and regardless of the dominoes that might fall because of it, after it is over compliance with and enforcement of US foreign influence laws will revert to the norms of non-compliance and lax enforcement.
That is, of course, unless Congress acts and passes legislation to modernize our antiquated foreign influence laws and protect democracy in America. That’s why Members of Congress can’t treat Zuckerberg as a punching bag for election interference. Certainly, Facebook has made mistakes, but the onus to protect American democracy is on Congress, not Facebook. Regardless of what Facebook does, if Congress continues to fail to act American politics will remain heavily under the influence of foreign powers.
Ben Freeman, Ph.D., is the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, and author of “The Foreign Policy Auction,” an investigation of foreign influence in America.