Lawmakers, experts warn Russian interference extends beyond 2016 election

FILE - In this July 18, 2017, file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin watches an aerobatics team performance at the opening ceremony of the MAKS-2017 (the International Aviation and Space Show) in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow, Russia. (Alexei Nikolsky, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

While much of the debate over alleged Russian social media propaganda has focused on the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, evidence is mounting that attempts to influence the American public extend far beyond swaying their votes in November.

CNN and the Washington Post reported this week that social media accounts and ads on Facebook and Twitter linked to Russian operatives exploited the Black Lives Matter movement and other racial issues to stoke division.

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Posts by one account calling itself “Blacktivist” appear to be intended to provoke outrage over treatment of African Americans by police. The Facebook account, which CNN noted had more “likes” than the verified Black Lives Matter page, publicized numerous rallies and demonstrations, including the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party.

According to the Post, some Russia-linked Facebook ads promoted Black Lives Matter and targeted areas like Baltimore and Ferguson where tensions were already high, while others sought to portray the group as a threat.

Other posts attributed to Russian entities reportedly targeted Muslims and immigrants. The Daily Beast reported that suspected Russian ads publicized rallies for President Donald Trump in 17 cities. Others spread anti-refugee and anti-Islam propaganda.

Lawmakers have even suggested that Russian trolls are currently fanning the flames of the dispute between President Trump and the NFL.

“They were taking both sides of the argument this past weekend and pushing them out on their troll farms as much as they could try to raise the noise level in America and make a big issue seem like an even bigger issue as they are trying to push divisiveness in this country,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., on Wednesday.

Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee fear Russia has also been using social media to turn the American public against fracking to protect its own stake in the global energy market. They have also suggested some Americans are colluding with that campaign.

In letters to Facebook, Twitter, and Alphabet Tuesday, Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, demanded documents and information on Russian entities purchasing anti-fracking and anti-fossil fuel ads “to manipulate the U.S. energy market.”

“The Committee is concerned that divisive social and political messages conveyed through social media have negatively affected certain energy sectors, which can depress research and development in the fossil-fuel sector and the expanding potential for natural gas,” the letters stated.

Smith specifically alleged that Russian President Vladimir Putin is funneling money to U.S. environmental activist groups to promote anti-fracking propaganda and suppressing the adoption of fracking in the U.S.

Democrats on the committee are skeptical.

“I think he’s making it up. Just as he’s making it up that climate change is not occurring and fossil fuels are not contributing,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.

According to Michael Carpenter, senior director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, attempting to influence the energy market would be entirely consistent with known Russian tactics.

“The Kremlin has a long history of financially supporting NGOs and groups in foreign countries that serve its economic interests or those of Kremlin-connected oligarchs,” Carpenter, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, said. “It has supported anti-fracking groups in European countries, as well as environmental groups opposed to Western-built pipelines that would compete with Russian gas.”

Glenn Carle, who served in the CIA for 23 years and wrote a book, “The Interrogator: An Education, about post-9/11 intelligence operations, had not heard these specific allegations about anti-fracking ads before, but he said it is plausible because Russia is extremely reliant on its oil business and increased U.S. energy supplies could create a historic shift in the market with wide-ranging repercussions.

“It changes the entire game, not just for energy but for geopolitics,” he said.

More answers about Russian activities may be forthcoming as House and Senate committees seek public testimony from social media company executives. The Senate Intelligence Committee is planning a hearing for November 1. The House Intelligence Committee aims to hold one in October.

Lawmakers have so far been underwhelmed by the response from Twitter and Facebook to apparent Russian infiltration of their online communities.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg publicly dismissed concerns about propagation of Russian “fake news” on his platform last year, and he reportedly did the same when President Barack Obama warned him about it in private.

Recently, however, Facebook pulled down nearly 500 accounts found to be linked to the Internet Research Agency, a company identified by U.S. intelligence as a Kremlin-funded troll farm.

President Trump claimed earlier this week that Facebook was “anti-Trump,” while many experts and former officials have said Russia-linked content posted on the site was intended to benefit him. Zuckerberg fired back at both of those positions Wednesday.

“Both sides are upset about ideas and content they don't like. That's what running a platform for all ideas looks like,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

He added that he regrets initially blowing off complaints about misinformation on the site impacting the election, but he believes the positive effects of the site on the democratic process outweigh the negatives.

“The data we have has always shown that our broader impact -- from giving people a voice to enabling candidates to communicate directly to helping millions of people vote -- played a far bigger role in this election,” he said.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are urging Facebook to reexamine its advertising policies and implement reforms that prevent foreign and domestic entities from placing ads intended to inflame social tensions.

“It is my belief that Facebook cannot be the Trojan horse through which America’s vulnerabilities are exploited,” Rep. Robin Kelly, R-Ill., wrote in a letter to Zuckerberg this week.

After a briefing before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., called “deeply disappointing” and “inadequate on almost every level,” Twitter published an update on its internal inquiry on Russian interference on Thursday.

The site has taken action against more than 200 accounts that were somehow related to the 470 that Facebook identified. It also reported that Russia Today purchased nearly $275,000 worth of ads targeting U.S. markets last year.

A recent study suggested that misinformation on Twitter in the final days of the 2016 campaign was targeted to pivotal geographic areas. Researchers at Oxford University studied 781,000 tweets from the 10 days before the election and concluded that users in 11 swing states received more information from fake and hyper-partisan sources than from professional news outlets.

Twitter has questioned the methodology of the study, which has not been peer-reviewed and considered only an extremely small percentage of its overall traffic.

A new poll commissioned by the Factual Democracy Project found that more than 70 percent of registered voters believe Facebook has the same obligation to prevent the spread of “fake news” on its site as traditional news organizations. Nearly three-quarters of respondents also said Facebook should not allow foreign powers to purchase ads targeting American voters during election season.

Ronald Grigor Suny, a professor at the University of Michigan and a researcher at the National Research University in Saint Petersburg who has written numerous books on Russian and Soviet history, cautioned against leaping to the conclusion that the Russian government was behind these ads and social media posts without hard public evidence.

“I’m a real skeptic about all of this…. I’m still waiting for the proof the hacking and all that,” he said.

Official Russian media outlets like Russia Today tend to have an anti-western propaganda element in their reporting, according to Suny, but that has long been true.

“They definitely sow a kind of very negative and overly conflictual image of the United States,” he said. He finds claims of Russian hackers targeting the U.S. at Putin’s behest more nebulous based on what is currently known.

“It’s a very complex picture that somehow we have an impulse to simplify and demonize Russia,” Suny said.

Other experts are thoroughly convinced of the Kremlin’s role in a broader disinformation campaign.

“75,000 percent,” Carle said. “Absolutely certain. It’s as clear as day. The evidence, forget saying its overwhelming, it’s categorical. Even independent of evidence, we know how the Russian intelligence service conducts its business.”

According to Carpenter, these efforts are typically directed by the government and carried out by others.

“Russia's information operations rely on proxies, whether it be cyber criminals who have been coopted by the Russian intelligence services or employees of Russian 'troll farms' like the Internet Research Agency, which is run by one of President Putin's close associates,” he said. “The Russian presidential administration provides the strategic direction for these information operations and then Russia's intelligence services and other proxies carry it out at the tactical-operational level.”

Russia benefits greatly from the divisions and fractures in U.S. society that these ads and social media posts seem designed to agitate.

“It allows them to extend their field of action with less coherent and strong opposition,” Carle said.

Carpenter said it fits in with Putin’s goals of undermining international order and weakening western alliances.

“The Kremlin wants Western countries to be weak and pre-occupied with internal problems so that it can more effectively subjugate its neighbors and undermine the transatlantic consensus favoring sanctions against Russia,” he said.

Considering how effective it appears to have been in the last two years, experts doubt Russia will stop attempting to sow division in the West anytime soon. That requires a serious discussion of how to prevent or weaken such efforts in the future.

“This is all classic stuff,” Carle said. “The only twist is that it uses the contemporary new media…so it’s exponentially more powerful than anything that existed prior to that.”

He offered two avenues for combatting Russian social media propaganda. One is promoting free speech and diversity of opinions.

“You have to counter what is a distortion of reality,” he said. “There are objective facts, so you can’t let the alternative narrative go unchallenged because it’s garbage, demonstrably wrong, and shouldn’t be allowed to stand.”

Carle also suggested some degree of vetting and fact-checking should be required for certain information posted on the sites.

“You have to have some sort of regulatory scheme for this public space,” he said. “It cannot be lawless…. Anarchy is not the friend of anybody.”

Also leaving the U.S. more vulnerable to Russian manipulation is a lack of experience with it. According to Carpenter, countries like Estonia and Finland that have long been targets of Russian misinformation have built up an immunity, and the U.S. may eventually need to as well.

“Americans are not any more predisposed to accepting disinformation than others,” he said. “The difference, however, is that we are not used to having Russia spreading disinformation in our media on a mass scale, and that's largely because social media use has grown exponentially in the last decade and unfortunately these media offer anonymous foreign actors a great tool for spreading falsehoods.”

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