At one moment during his six hours of testimony on Wednesday, former special counsel Robert Mueller seemed to dissolve all partisanship among House members when he spoke strongly about one topic: interference by Russian agents in American democracy.
“They’re doing it as we sit here,” he said. And, Mr. Mueller added, “many” countries other than Russia are trying to hack elections and orchestrate strife among Americans with false information.
He was not speaking only to Congress. After issuing his report in May about Russian meddling and alleged collusion by the Trump campaign, he said the multiple efforts by Moscow to interfere in the 2016 election deserve “the attention of every American.”
Government, in other words, cannot solve the problem alone. Citizens are on the front lines of today’s misinformation warfare and ballot manipulation. They must discern false stories on social media, for example, as well as ensure that local election systems cannot be hacked. Beyond being defensive, however, they should build up trust in democracy and maintain a measure of unity despite political differences.
Initiatives to counter foreign interference must “focus on empowering individuals to be active and informed citizens through generational investments in democratic discourse, civic engagement, and truth,” says the Kennan Institute’s Nina Jankowicz, who is working on a book about Russian influence in Eastern Europe.
She says people must develop digital literacy to navigate the modern information environment. They can invest in reliable sources of news. The United States, she says, can learn from countries that are already countering Russian meddling, such as Lithuania, Estonia, and Sweden. They are building “robust democratic systems” that create civic resiliency in citizens.
In Lithuania, thousands of volunteers help track online information for false reports that might incite political strife. Calling themselves “elves,” they coordinate with government in what is called a whole-of-society approach. In nearby Estonia, a “cyber defense league” was created after a massive Russian cyberattack in 2007. It has enlisted an online army of volunteers to scan media and alert people to misinformation.
Such efforts rely on citizens taking responsibility for the integrity of their voting process and the truthfulness in media and political campaigns. Democratic values, as much as cyber defenses, are the best deterrent to those trying to tear apart democracies.