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Michael G. Roskin: Net Losers

The U.S. faces two cyberthreats — Russian “sweeping and systematic” electoral interference, as the Mueller report described it, and ethno-nationalists bent on violence. These evil twins depend on the internet and social media for their very existence. Mere words won’t stop them. To avoid becoming ’net losers, we must take defensive steps. First: control cyberspace — either by self-policing or new laws — before it wrecks the nation.

As for the first threat: We won the Cold War, but Putin’s Russia won the rematch. Moscow’s motive: Weakening America and Europe makes Russia safer (not really true). And it was easy and cheap! For under a billion dollars, Russian military intelligence and oligarchs, who are closely tied to Putin, used online disinformation to widen U.S. polarization, encourage Americans to hate each other and contribute to Trump’s victory.

Some claim we have no evidence the Russian efforts worked. Moscow thinks they did. That’s why they fielded lots of them. Use of American data — which Republican campaign officials delivered free and social-media platforms sold — by Cambridge Analytica in London and the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia, show how social scientists mine and weaponize data. We can use similar methods to reveal the patterns and magnitude of the intrusion.

Events may frustrate Moscow’s intentions. Tumult rarely serves longer-term national interests. After the Mueller report, Republicans will reject Russian claims of innocence, oligarchs and redhead NRA fans. Who will vote for, or hire, a pro-Russian Republican? Russia-friend Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) was defeated in 2018 after 20 years in the House.

The interests of Republicans in Congress and President Trump are beginning to diverge. The congresspeople seek re-election and so denounce Russia; some cooperate with Democrats on cyberwarfare. A handful, such as Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah), have already stopped protecting Trump. The president, on the other hand, must dismiss Russia contacts as hoaxes because, if they weren’t, his election is delegitimized.

The Mueller report did not solidify “conspiracy” and “obstruction of justice” into indictable or impeachable charges. Other charges may include failure to enforce laws and “protect and defend” the Constitution against foreign enemies. As a candidate, Trump was in no position to do that. Initial blame for tardy and weak responses falls on the Obama administration. Obama gave Putin frosty looks. That showed him.

But Republicans cannot both cite Obama’s insufficient steps and dismiss the whole thing as a “Russian hoax.” If they accuse Obama of failing to stem Russian penetration, they admit it wasn’t a hoax. And they immediately face the question: “What have you done about it?” The White House so far is silent and taking no steps to safeguard the 2020 elections.

Trump faces a problem rare among presidents: Former (and current) officials hate him. Abused by a chaotic White House and soon fired, few feel loyalty to an erratic brow-beater. Most of those Mueller called gave him evidence and would not lie for Trump to congressional committees. Some Nixon aides reluctantly (but truthfully) testified; Trump’s aides wouldn’t be reluctant. Payback lives. Witness Michael Cohen.

Multiple committee hearings will take so long that the November 2020 election might be upon us before any impeachment bill. But the long parade of Trumpian misdeeds — including several financial charges in SDNY — might defeat him in 2020. A possible escape hatch: If Trump loses, he could resign before January 20, 2021, and let President Pence pardon him, thus avoiding indictment after he’s left office.

In a way, the system worked. Several officials — mostly Trump’s appointees — aware of their constitutional responsibilities, refused Trump’s illegal orders. (Mueller’s biggest single source was White House attorney Don McGahn.) They simply buried the orders, recalling the old Spanish bureaucratic adage, “Obedece pero no se cumple” (Obey but do not comply). Trump never understood that federal officials have more autonomy and job security than his easily fired business managers and TV contestants.

Now, as for the second threat, the tweet-addicted haters. It scarcely matters whom they hate — Christians in Sri Lanka, Muslims in New Zealand, African-American churchgoers or Jews in Pittsburgh and San Diego — plotters uniformly spring from the internet and social media. Often called “lone-wolf” and “self-radicalized,” troubled youths are drawn by tweets into fanaticism. They feed off each other’s messages, even posting their intended murder sprees to the encouragement of fellow haters. We seem powerless to stop them.

Are we fully prepared to block the next Russian or gunman onslaught? How about a panel of media experts to quickly identify and delete dangerous bots and extremists? Under the title, “Don’t Fall for This,” they could daily flag foreign manipulation and ethno-nationalist amplification.

Social-media platforms should fund this to demonstrate (tardy) responsibility in policing the web. Or face new federal laws. The social media are not just “message boards”: If they carry it, they own it, just like the regular media. Electoral tilting and incitement to murder are not neutral.