Anyone in Europe and Britain worried about the state of US democracy should take time to watch the videos of this week’s congressional hearings over Russian online meddling in the 2016 presidential election. If the words “checks and balances” mean anything, this surely is it. My favourite moment is when senator Dianne Feinstein leans into the microphone and says sternly to the Facebook, Twitter and Google representatives (whose evasive answers have exasperated her): “You don’t get it! This is a very big deal. What we’re talking about is cataclysmic. It is cyber warfare. A major foreign power with sophistication and ability got involved in our presidential election.” We don’t yet know the full picture. In particular, we don’t know if Russian-promoted bots, trolls and online ads had an impact that in any way altered the outcome of the US election. At this stage, to claim they did may be crediting Vladimir Putin with more power than he actually wields. What emerged from the hearings is that Russia’s likeliest goal was to sow discord and confusion among citizens of the world’s most powerful democracy.
Still, it would be wrong to think this affects America alone. Europe and Britain are directly concerned by what the US investigations will uncover. Atlanticism and its security dimensions are much debated these days. (Questions also lurk in the background over the national act of self-mutilation that is Brexit.) But the transatlantic relationship has a new dimension to explore: the online world. Feinstein hinted at this when she said: “The US is the first country to bring attention” to the “responsibility” of tech giants in making sure social media isn’t turned into an instrument of authoritarianism rather than a platform for citizens’ freedom. “Other countries will follow,” she said.
The ripple effects of the US investigations into Russian meddling will be felt in Europe also.
Russian interference in Europe’s politics and its information space is not new, of course. Its roots lie in old KGB disinformation methods, now actively combined with new technologies. In Britain, the question has taken on an important new twist, with growing calls for parliamentary scrutiny of the financing of the pro-Brexit campaign, whose social media dimension mattered greatly. If the “special relationship” still has meaning, surely it must now include a joint effort to get to the bottom of how Russian social media manipulation in the US resonated with what happened in the UK referendum.