In the wake of a controversial call between President Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Urkaine and even as some of President Trump’s supporters in Congress push a narrative that corrupt forces in Ukraine were behind 2016 election meddling, the second of a five-part bipartisan report from the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed Russia was behind a sweeping social media campaign to influence the election by supporting Trump and skewering rival Hillary Clinton.
“In 2016, Russian operatives associated with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) used social media to conduct an information warfare campaign designed to spread disinformation and societal division in the United States,” the report said.
“The bipartisan work that this committee has done to uncover and detail the extent of that effort has significantly advanced the public’s understanding of how, in 2016, Russia took advantage of our openness and innovation, exploiting American-bred social media platforms to spread disinformation, divide the public, and undermine our democracy,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chairman of the committee.
Noting that operatives masquerading as Americans “used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States,” the report said. “This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government’s covert support of Russia’s favored candidate in the U.S. presidential election.”
The report describes an “information warfare campaign” that “was broad in scope and entailed objectives beyond the result of the 2016 presidential election” to ultimately achieve Russia’s goals “‘to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,’” as the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment had determined. But the second installment of the Senate report found that the operatives’ efforts went beyond the IC assessment that the “Russian government ‘aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him,’” and instead “IRA social media activity was overtly and almost invariably supportive of then-candidate Trump, and to the detriment of Secretary Clinton’s campaign.”
Those efforts haven’t abated. “Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election. Their goal is broader: to sow societal discord and erode public confidence in the machinery of government,” said Committee Chairman Richard Burr, D-tk. “By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories, and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans.”
With the 2020 elections approaching, Warner said, “there’s no doubt that bad actors will continue to try to weaponize the scale and reach of social media platforms to erode public confidence and foster chaos.
And although Russia might have “the first to hone the modern disinformation tactics outlined in this report, other adversaries, including China, North Korea, and Iran, are following suit,” said Burr.
“The Russian playbook is out in the open for other foreign and domestic adversaries to expand upon – and their techniques will only get more sophisticated,” said Warner.
The Virginia senator said Congress can’t “expect social media companies to take adequate precautions on their own” and “must step up and establish guardrails to protect the integrity of our democracy.”
At a minimum, Congress must “demand transparency around social media to prevent our adversaries from hiding in its shadows,” said Warner. “We also need to give Americans more control over their data and how it’s used, and make sure that they know who’s really bankrolling the political ads coming across their screens. Additionally, we need to take measures to guarantee that companies are identifying inauthentic user accounts and pages, and appropriately handling defamatory or synthetic content.”
Burr cautioned that solutions going forward had “to balance America’s national security interests with our constitutionally-protected right to free speech” and called for social media companies, federal agencies, law enforcement, and Congress to “work together to address these challenges.”