Democrats have been renewing their calls this week for the FBI to release more information on the connections among Donald Trump, his top advisers and the Russian government. But it is already clear that Russia’s intervention in our election on Trump's side is the real scandal of 2016 — and we must take more seriously the threat this interference poses to democratic countries around the world.
For years, Russia and other authoritarian governments have been waging a shadow campaign to discredit democratic institutions worldwide, focusing much of their energy on Europe and former Soviet states in Asia. The goal is not necessarily to prove the superiority of their system, but to diminish the appeal of representative government and to undermine Western leaders by making them seem corrupt or malicious. This war has been waged by propaganda outlets such as Russia Today and Sputnik News, but also through the spread of misinformation and lies across the Internet.
I have some experience with their methods because for years, Russian propaganda outlets have been spreading the bizarre rumor that I once said Siberia does not belong to Russia. After I denied saying this, Russian officials even claimed that they had read my mind — a capability I did not know they or their friends at Wikileaks had yet developed.
Russia's disinformation campaign against me was not very effective, but I fear its actions against our democracy may inflict real damage.
The Russian government has already hacked into the emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta in an effort to create confusion and turn voters off from politics. Over the summer, Russian hackers infiltrated voter registration systems in a handful of states and made attempts in many more.Intelligence officials have also reportedly warned that they may post phony documents showing widespread voter fraud — all in order to create doubt about the validity of the U.S. election results, and to make us seem hypocritical when we question the conduct of elections in other countries.
Experts agree that it would be impossible for any hacker to actually alter election results. But if Russia — with assistance from Trump’s false claims about a rigged election — succeeds in undermining voter confidence in the integrity of the process, it will be a gift to autocrats, despots and illiberal politicians around the world. I have already heard anecdotes about people working to promote free and fair elections in other countries who have had Trump’s words about fraud thrown back at them. It has hurt their credibility and the credibility of American organizations as they promote the benefits of representative government.
It is time for us to regain the upper hand against all those who are attacking our system. But how can we fight back?
First, leaders at the local, state and national levels need to defend the legitimacy of the presidential election. The conduct of our elections is not a partisan issue and the credibility of the process should not be up for debate. The peaceful transfer of power is central to our national identity and to our international credibility. Even in close elections where some irregularities did occur, such as the 2000 presidential election in Florida, both sides followed an established legal process and ultimately respected the outcome. Regardless of what Trump says, Democratic and Republican leaders must leave no doubt that they will uphold democratic principles and the Constitution following the vote.
Second, we need to expose this disinformation campaign and limit its effects. We already have systems in place to monitor Islamic State propaganda on the Internet, and we should do the same for authoritarian propaganda. The U.S. government should work with technology companies to develop better policies to deal with anti-democratic trolling, as they have done with cyberbullying, hate speech and violent extremism. We should launch an educational campaign so that those who are targets of propaganda understand the source and motivations behind it. We also need to offer more assistance to frontline states in Central and Eastern Europe as they stand up against the threat of illiberalism from within and without. This includes speaking to their publics, strengthening political parties and keeping open space for civil society.
Finally, we cannot only be reactive. Ultimately, the best way to counter anti-democratic propaganda is to tell the story of our democracy and do more to support democratic allies and activists around the world.
In recent years, democracy’s friends have been too timid, perhaps worried that the promotion of freedom was given a bad name by those who used it to justify the war in Iraq. While it is true that overselling democracy can be a mistake, selling it short would be an unforgivable error.
The right of people to participate in choosing their own leaders and shaping their own laws has been and remains the most powerful contributor to human progress and global stability. To protect our values and our interests, the United States must once again make strengthening democracy a central tenet of its foreign policy.
This election has reminded us that, in any society, building democracy is never easy and never fully accomplished; it is something to be worked toward, step by step, country by country, day by day. But since the inception of the United States, we have understood how vital it is that we stand together to help freedom succeed. Imposing democracy is an oxymoron, but defending democracy — in our country and abroad — is perhaps our most vital mission.
Madeleine Albright is a former secretary of state of the United States.