One day after it was reported by executives at Facebook that over 32 covertly-crafted fake pages on its site were designed to influence this fall’s midterm elections in the U.S., the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, with Virginia’s Senator Mark Warner as its vice-chairman, conducted hearings on just such developments Wednesday.
The “Foreign Influence on Social Media Platforms” hearing featured three third-party social media experts, Renee DiResta of New Knowledge, Philip Howard of the Oxford Internet Institute and Laura Rosenberger of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.
Warner, in an opening statement to the committee, cautioned that with just three months to go before the critical November 2018 midterm elections, “Russian-backed operatives continue to infiltrate and manipulate social media to hijack the national conversation and set Americans against each other. They were doing it in 2016. They are still doing it today.”
He stated that even after 18 months of investigating the phenomenon, and the indictments of 13 Russians and three Russian companies as a result, “We are still only scratching the surface when it comes to Russia’s information warfare.”
Facebook, in reporting its rooting out of 32 divisive, incendiary and false pages aimed at the November election, said it could not establish definitively that the pages came from Russia, but Warner said they did.
Facebook said that “some of the tools and techniques used by the accounts were similar to those used by the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-linked group that was at the center of the indictments earlier this year,” according to a report in the New York Times.
Activity, according to the report, centered on divisive agitating around a sequel to last year’s deadline “United the Right” white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, and #AbolishICE, a campaign on social media to end the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.
Also reported in recent weeks by the Daily Beast has been the disclosure that the office of Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, facing a tough re-election challenge this year, was unsuccessfully targeted by Russian hackers, as confirmed by U.S. intelligence officials, and that at least one other unnamed Democratic U.S. senator up for re-election has been targeted.
(Warner’s colleague, Virginia U.S. Senator Tim Kaine is up for re-election this fall.)
In his opening statement at the hearing Wednesday, Warner said,
“This Committee has invested a significant amount of time, focus and energy – both in public and behind closed doors – in uncovering and exposing Russian information warfare in our own backyard. It is clear that our efforts have increased Americans’ understanding of what the Russians did in 2016 and how they sought to attack us through the use of social media.
“It was pressure brought to bear by this Committee that led Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to uncover malicious activity by the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency.
“These revelations eventually resulted in the indictments of 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies by the Special Counsel’s office in February 2018.
“Social media oversight has not typically been a function of our Committee. I have no problem acknowledging that the terminology of this world – bots… spam… click-bait… API… trolls – does not always come naturally to all of us. But, thanks to bipartisan determination to understand what happened in 2016, and a commitment to stopping it from happening again, we have been able to accomplish a lot: We have helped reveal the Russian playbook. We have raised public awareness regarding the threat.
“We have succeeded, however incrementally, in pressuring each of these companies to take steps to address the problems on their platforms.
“That’s the good news. The bad news is that we have a lot more work to do. Twenty-one months after the 2016 election – and only three months before the 2018 elections – Russian-backed operatives continue to infiltrate and manipulate social media to hijack the national conversation and set Americans against each other. They were doing it in 2016. They are still doing it today. That was made evident just yesterday, when Facebook announced the take-down of 32 new pages and accounts that had connections to the Russian-backed influence operation.
“In our previous hearings on Russian disinformation, we outlined the Russian playbook in the 2016 elections. We discussed how Russian operatives set up thousands of fake and automated accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and others in order to build networks of hundreds of thousands of real Americans. These networks pushed an array of misinformation, including stolen emails, state-led propaganda, fake news, and divisive content onto the news feeds of as many potentially receptive Americans as they could. And, as you will no doubt hear today from our experts, they were extremely successful in doing so.
“These active measures have two things in common: They are effective. And they are cheap. For just pennies on the dollar, they can wreak havoc in our society and in our elections.
“I’m concerned that even after 18 months of study, we are still only scratching the surface when it comes to Russia’s information warfare.
“Much of the initial focus was on paid advertisements. But it quickly became clear that these ads represented a tiny percentage of the IRA activity – compared to the hundreds of thousands of free Facebook and Instagram posts, pages and groups, and millions of Tweets from IRA-backed accounts. Today, it is becoming clearer that IRA activity represents just a small fraction of the total Russian effort on social media.
“I’m also concerned that the U.S. government is not well positioned to detect, track, or counter these types of influence operations on social media. These types of asymmetric attacks – which include foreign operatives appearing to be Americans engaging in online public discourse – almost by design slip between the seams of our free speech guarantees and our legal authorities and responsibilities.
“Before I went into public service, I spent more than 20 years in the technology business. And I have tremendous respect for these companies, and what they represent. And when they are at their best, they are a symbol of what this country does best: innovation. Job creation. Changing the world.
“I’ve been hard on them – that’s true. But it’s because I know they can do better to protect our democracy. This is only going to get harder. As digital targeting continues to improve, and as new advances in technology and artificial intelligence, like deepfakes, continue to spread, the magnitude of the challenge will only grow.
“Russian active measures have revealed a dark underbelly of the social media ecosystem. These same tools that spread misinformation can negatively affect other aspects of our lives. I think we need to start pushing ourselves beyond just recognizing the problem and start to push actual policy ideas forward.”