The House will vote today on the SHIELD Act, a Democrat-led and misguided effort to deter foreign interference in American elections. While both parties agree that foreign interference, especially online, was a serious issue in the 2016 election, in fact, the GOP has its own bill, this Democratic effort fails in two major ways. First, it threatens First Amendment protections on free political speech, and second, it fails to address the major issue in 2016 interference.
Free Speech Limitations
One of the major problems with the SHEILD Act regarding free speech is a provision that allows the federal government to determine what is and is not “legitimate journalistic activities” for the purposes of protecting them from the provisions of the act. The obvious problem with this is that should the federal government decide a journalistic activity is not legitimate, it will have broad powers to silence it.
In addition to this concern, the bill creates a wide array of hoops for United States citizens wishing to engage in political speech to jump through. By making it more difficult to purchase online ads, the bill threatens to chill speech. Regular Americans should not fear federal prosecution for engaging in the political process.
It is not only the GOP that opposes these illiberal elements of the bill, and the bill itself, but also the ACLU, which in a statement said, “The SHIELD Act, as it currently stands, strikes the wrong balance, sweeping too broadly and encompassing more speech than necessary to achieve its legitimate goals.”
Addressing The Wrong Problem
Much of the bill reads like a fantasy recap of what Democrats want to believe happened in 2016. It focuses on communications and interactions between foreign individuals and American political campaigns. Not only are many of these provisions redundant and needless, they also fail to strike at the root of Russian (and other nations’) interference in our elections, the bulk of which come via free social media platforms.
Russia spent very little money actually buying ads on social media platforms, the vast majority of its effort, which may have reached more than 100 million Americans was directed toward a social media presence that was free. They created vast troll farms of users who studied and mimicked American social media users to create discord on platforms.
The effort was alarmingly successful, sometimes even leading to “in real life” events organized by followers of the fake accounts. According to the Mueller report, it also led several media outlets to report on these fake, often offensive accounts, as if they came from regular Americans. Unfortunately, unlike the GOP bill that lays out punishments for foreign governments that engage in these activities, the SHIELD Act does nothing to deter them.
The Democratic bill frankly looks like a rehashing of the collapsed allegation of collusion against the Trump campaign. In short, it is a solution to something that we now know was not the problem. The House should go back to the drawing board and pass a bill that contains measures that can actually make a difference, or simply pass the Republican bill.
As it stands, the badly flawed SHIELD Act looks to be playing politics while stripping Americans of speech rights, more than it looks to actually protect American elections.