The social media companies Google, Facebook, and Twitter spent the past two days testifying before Congress on how Russian intelligence agencies used their media platforms to engage in a disinformation campaign to disrupt the 2016 election and undermine confidence in the American political system, and are continuing to actively do so.
We previously learned that Facebook sold $100,000 in ads to the Russian propaganda troll farm Internet Research Agency, paid for in Rubles no less. Some Facebook ads bought by Russian company may have violated US election law. Nevertheless, Facebook and Google declined under repeated congressional questioning Tuesday to commit to stop taking Russian rubles and other foreign currencies as payment for American political advertisements, despite federal election law prohibiting payments from foreign nationals. Facebook, Google won’t commit to stop taking foreign cash for U.S. political ads.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had initially dismissed the notion that fake news stories proliferated on Facebook to manipulate voters. A preliminary internal investigation by Facebook reported that Facebook found over 3,000 ads that came from inauthentic accounts linked to a Russian group called the Internet Research Agency that operated between 2015 and 2017. Some 10 million people in the U.S. viewed at least one of those ads, with around 44 percent of those views happening before the Nov. 8, 2016 election. 10 million saw Facebook political ads posted from Russia-linked fake accounts. Prior to this week’s congressional testimony, that number was dramatically revised upward. Russian fake accounts showed posts to 126 million Facebook users:
As many as 126 million people — or one-third the U.S. population — may have seen material posted by a Russian troll farm under fake Facebook identities between 2015 and 2017, according to testimony presented by Facebook’s general counsel at a hearing before the Senate on Tuesday.
The figure is the largest yet of the possible reach Russian operatives had on the giant social platformin the run-up to last year’s presidential election and afterwards and reflects Facebook’s new disclosures that a Kremlin-linked misinformation agency used original content in users’ feeds, as well as paid ads. Previously Facebook said 10 million people saw Russia-linked advertising that sought to sway U.S. voters.
Then there are The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election:
The Russian information attack on the election did not stop with the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails or the fire hose of stories, true, false and in between, that battered Mrs. Clinton on Russian outlets like RT and Sputnik. Far less splashy, and far more difficult to trace, was Russia’s experimentation on Facebook and Twitter, the American companies that essentially invented the tools of social media and, in this case, did not stop them from being turned into engines of deception and propaganda.
An investigation by The New York Times, and new research from the cybersecurity firm FireEye, reveals some of the mechanisms by which suspected Russian operators used Twitter and Facebook to spread anti-Clinton messages and promote the hacked material they had leaked . . . On Twitter, as on Facebook, Russian fingerprints are on hundreds or thousands of fake accounts that regularly posted anti-Clinton messages. Many were automated Twitter accounts, called bots, that sometimes fired off identical messages seconds apart — and in the exact alphabetical order of their made-up names, according to the FireEye researchers.
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Clinton Watts, a former F.B.I. agent who has closely tracked Russian activity online, said that Facebook and Twitter suffered from a “bot cancer eroding trust on their platforms.” But he added that while Facebook “has begun cutting out the tumors by deleting false accounts and fighting fake news,” Twitter has done little and as a result, “bots have only spread since the election.”
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Given the powerful role of social media in political contests, understanding the Russian efforts will be crucial in preventing or blunting similar, or more sophisticated, attacks in the 2018 congressional races and the 2020 presidential election.
The New Democrat Network has a good Primer on Social Media Bots and Their Malicious Use in U.S. Politics.
Then there were Russian operatives hiding behind false identities used Facebook’s event-management tool to remotely organize and promote political protests in the U.S., including an August 2016 anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rally in Idaho. Exclusive: Russia Used Facebook Events to Organize Anti-Immigrant Rallies on U.S. Soil.
Finally, Russian government-linked hackers potentially targeted as many as 21 states’ election systems last year, a Homeland Security official warned Congress. DHS officials: 21 states potentially targeted by Russia hackers pre-election.
Russia’s effort to influence U.S. voters through Facebook and other social media is a “red-hot” focus of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 election and possible links to President Donald Trump’s associates, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter. Mueller Probe Has ‘Red-Hot’ Focus on Social Media, Officials Say.
Despite the unanimous consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russians are engaged in a sophisticated cyber war against the United States to undermine confidence in the American political system, there is one person that refuses to believe it because it detracts from his own magnificence, the always insecure egomaniacal Twitter-troll-in-chief Donald Trump (aka the “moron” in the White House). And Tea-Publicans in Congress, so far, are going along with him, leaving the country vulnerable to ever more sophisticated cyber attacks from the Russians in the future.
Greg Sargent of the Washington Post reports, New reporting deals another big blow to Trump’s dangerous Russia spin:
We all need to do a better job stating clearly what President Trump’s position on the Russia probes really is and what it really means. When Trump dismisses discussion of Russian interference in the 2016 election as a hoax, he isn’t merely saying the charge of collusion with that meddling is a hoax. He’s also saying that the alleged Russian sabotage itself, irrespective of whether his campaign colluded with it, definitively never happened at all and, by extension, doesn’t merit any inquiry or discussion.
Some new reporting out this morning underscores in a fresh way just how reckless, irresponsible and potentially dangerous to our democracy this stance has become.
The Associated Press reports that the Russian effort to swing the election to Trump may have been much broader than previously known. The AP reports on extensive new data collected by a cybersecurity firm [Secureworks stumbled upon the data after a hacking group known as Fancy Bear accidentally exposed part of its phishing operation to the internet. The list revealed a direct line between the hackers and the leaks that rocked the presidential contest in its final stages, most notably the private emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta] — which accessed it via a misstep by hackers — that experts say leaves little doubt of direct Russian involvement in the hacking and reveals a much broader set of targets for it than previous reporting had indicated. One key revelation concerns how many Democratic Party officials were hit by the hacks, per the AP: “More than 130 party workers, campaign staffers and supporters of the party were targeted, including [campaign chair John] Podesta and other members of [Hillary] Clinton’s inner circle.”
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Justice Department has identified “more than six members of the Russian government” who were allegedly behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee. If charges are filed, the Journal notes, “the case would provide the clearest picture yet of the actors behind the DNC intrusion.”
Note: Philip Bump of the Washington Post reports At least five people close to Trump engaged with Russian Twitter trolls from 2015 to 2017.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe is tasked, first and foremost, with investigating “the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” in addition to looking at any “coordination” with U.S. campaign officials. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s charge is similar. But Trump has repeatedly dismissed the very idea that there was any Russian interference at all as a hoax. To be fair, at times, he has acknowledged it may have happened and that we need to investigate the details, but far more often, his stance has been to dismiss the whole story as a “big Dem HOAX” and an “excuse for losing the election.”
This undermines efforts to develop a full accounting of that interference — which, in turn, undermines efforts to prevent it from happening again, something U.S. intelligence services have warned is likely. The new AP reporting, by revealing just how ambitious that interference appeared to be, underscores how much is riding on developing this full accounting, and it should prompt us to revisit just how destructive Trump’s blithe dismissals threaten to be.
The new reporting is also cause to revisit the posture of Republican lawmakers toward the Russian meddling efforts during the 2016 election. As The Post has reported, Obama administration officials privately asked senior congressional officials in both parties to show a united front against Russian sabotage, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) refused, claiming (in The Post’s words) that “he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics.”
Former CIA director John Brennan has delivered new public remarks about this that deserve attention. Brennan told “Frontline” the following about this meeting:
“In those briefings of Congress, some of the individuals expressed concern that this was motivated by partisan interests on the part of the [Obama] administration. And I took offense to that. I told them that this is an intelligence assessment; that this is an intelligence matter.”
The key here is that we don’t know just how extensive a case for Russian meddling was presented to these lawmakers. It is plausible that it was quite extensive. And as Brennan notes, it was backed up by U.S. intelligence and represented a request for a non-partisan, bi-partisan response. Yet McConnell killed this effort at bi-partisanship by claiming he would cast any public warnings as “partisan.”
To be clear, if Trump wants to say that the Russian sabotage has not been fully verified and that we don’t know the full story; that the Obama administration didn’t do enough on its own to counter the meddling; and that collusion has not been proven — well, all of that is defensible and true. But Trump is going a lot further than that. He’s saying definitively that the meddling itself never took place. The true nature of his position keeps getting lost in a fog of charges and countercharges about collusion. But we shouldn’t let that happen.
A bipartisan trio of senators, Democratic Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Republican Sen. John McCain, have introduced legislation that would place new disclosure requirements on political advertisements in an effort to combat the kind of election meddling that Russia engaged in during the 2016 election campaign. Senators introduce bill for new online political ad disclosures:
The would require the same disclosure for online political ads that is currently in place on ads that appear on television and the radio. They said at a news conference that the legislation would update US laws so that online political ads had the same protections against foreign interference as traditional ads.
“We need regulatory rules, a framework, that shields our elections from foreign money,” Klobuchar said. “If a candidate or a cause buys an ad on TV, the same rules should apply if they buy it on Facebook or Google or on Twitter.”
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The legislation is an outgrowth of the congressional investigations into Russia’s election meddling, which has taken a major interest in Russia’s use of social media platforms. Warner is the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, one of three panels looking into Russian activity tied to the election.
The bill would require digital platforms with at least 50 million viewers monthly to maintain a public file of all political ads purchased above a $500 threshold. The legislation also requires online platforms to “make all reasonable efforts” to ensure that foreign individuals are not purchasing US political ads.
The $500 threshold is much lower than what was initially considered when the senators were drafting the bill. In a letter sent to senators last month, Warner and Klobuchar wrote that their bill would require all major digital platforms to keep a public record of groups or individuals that make ad buys of more than $10,000, in line with television and radio ads.
The threshold was lowered because digital ads are much cheaper, Warner said.
Warner has said that the ads Facebook disclosed were just the “tip of the iceberg” of Russia’s election interference via social media, and he’s slammed Twitter for the limited scope of its internal investigation into the matter. He argued that the bill introduced Thursday was a “light touch” approach to regulating the social media companies.
The senators are introducing their bill with an eye toward getting new laws in place ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, warning that Russia is poised to once again seek to meddle in the US campaign.
But it’s not yet clear how quickly the bill would move or if it has support among key Republicans.
It’s also unclear where the social media giants will land on the bill once the details are released.
UPDATE: See Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post. How to stop Russian robots from attacking the next election.