WASHINGTON — Two newly released reports from the Senate Intelligence Committee about Russian interference in the 2016 election have been nothing short of revelatory. Both studies — one produced by researchers at Oxford University, the other by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge — describe in granular detail how the Russian government tried to sow discord and confusion among American voters. And both conclude that Russia's campaign included a massive effort to deceive and co-opt African Americans. We now have unassailable confirmation that a foreign power sought to exploit racial tensions in the United States for its own gain.
Ever since U.S. intelligence agencies reported that the Russian government worked to sway the 2016 election, foreign election meddling has been one of our nation's top national security concerns. But our discussions about Russian interference rarely touch on the other major threat to our elections: The resurgence of state-sponsored voter suppression in the United States. In light of these disturbing new reports, it is clear we can no longer think of foreign election meddling as a phenomenon separate from attempts to disenfranchise Americans of color. Racial injustice remains a real vulnerability in our democracy, one that foreign powers are only too willing to attack.
Silicon Valley has yet to come to grips with the enormous influence it wields.
How should we respond? First, we have to make it easier, not harder, for Americans to vote. In the wake of the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby County decision, which severely weakened the Voting Rights Act, we've seen a resurgence of voter-suppression efforts across the nation. Congress has the power to fix the Voting Rights Act, but so far it has declined to do so. The revelations of Russia's racial targeting should serve as a wake-up call that domestic voter suppression, in addition to being unconstitutional, effectively aids foreign attacks on our democracy. Indeed, we should take seriously the danger that domestic and foreign groups may coordinate to suppress turnout in future elections, a possibility we can begin to forestall, first and foremost, by protecting the franchise here at home. Rep. Terri A. Sewell, D-Ala., has already introduced a comprehensive new voting rights bill, and Congress should swiftly act upon it in the new year.
Second, these revelations only deepen the urgency of demanding more accountability from technology companies. The New Knowledge report criticizes social media companies such as Facebook for misleading Congress about the nature of Russian interference, noting that one even denied that specific groups were targeted. This is just more evidence that Silicon Valley has yet to come to grips with the enormous influence it wields in our democracy, and the ways that foreign powers can use that influence to manipulate Americans. Congress should require greater transparency and responsibility from these corporations before the 2020 elections.
FEB. 2018 Protest in front of the Trump Tower in New York — Photo: Rob Walsh
Finally, we have to accept that foreign powers seize upon these divisions because they are real — because racism remains America's Achilles' heel. Indeed, it is, and always has been, a national security vulnerability - a fundamental and easily exploitable reality of American life that belies the image and narrative of equality and justice we project and export around the world. It may be especially difficult in our era of "fake news' and "alternative facts," but we must recognize that our failure to acknowledge hard truths, especially when it comes to race, makes it easier for foreign powers to turn us against one another. Russia did not conjure out of thin air the black community's legitimate grievances about racist policing. Nor did it invent racist and hateful conspiracy theories. Rather, Russian trolls seized upon these real problems as ready-made sources of discord. Moving forward, we need to recognize that our failure to honestly address issues of civil rights and racial justice makes all of us more susceptible to foreign interference.
This is hardly the first time our adversaries have identified race and racism as America's great vulnerability. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union frequently pointed to segregation and civil unrest as proof of American hypocrisy. This propaganda was sufficiently widespread, and contained enough truth, that leaders of both parties began arguing that segregation undermined the United States' position in the Cold War, helping ease the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s.
Russian trolls seized upon these real problems as ready-made sources of discord.
Today, we need a similar understanding that our failure to ensure equal justice for all has grave implications for U.S. national security. The upcoming House oversight committee hearings on Russian interference and voter suppression will be critical opportunities to educate the public on the threats to our democracy, and they deserve our close attention.
But we must be careful not to reduce the struggle for racial equality into a bloodless question of national interest. Civil rights are essential to our national security, but national security cannot be the chief rationale for pursuing civil rights. After all, racial injustice is not just another chink in our armor. It is the great flaw in our character. Our adversaries know that race makes us our own worst enemy. It is past time we learn this hard truth ourselves.
*Ifill is president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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