Russia’s campaign to warp U.S. social media is jeopardizing America’s ability to conduct democratic debate heading into the November midterm elections, the bipartisan heads of the Senate Intelligence Committee warned Wednesday.
Committee Chairman Richard Burr cut across partisan lines to note that Russian attempts to manipulate U.S. public opinion through social media were planned out well before the 2016 election and are “nimble” enough for the Kremlin to distort whatever divisive “hot-button issue” it desires — regardless of party or candidate.
“This is the last time we are going to associate the [Russian] propaganda effort that we see with an election cycle,” said the North Carolina Republican, adding that Russia acts not because its leaders have “political leanings to the right or the left” but because “a weak America is good for Russia.”
Pressing a series of academics and national security experts on Kremlin disruption tactics, lawmakers addressed recent revelations that Facebook had detected what appeared to be “coordinated inauthentic behavior” similar to what Russia carried out during the 2016 presidential election.
The embattled social media giant on Tuesday said it had found and removed eight pages and 17 profiles connected to more than 9,500 posts that generated more than 290,000 followers, as part of its investigation into how Kremlin operatives manipulated the platform during the last election cycle.
Reacting to that news, the committee heads announced they will grill top Facebook, Twitter and Google executives early next month in a follow-up to November hearings that showcased Washington’s growing desire to rein in the largely unregulated world of social media and Silicon Valley’s unsatisfying attempts to thwart Russian propaganda.
Philip N. Howard, Oxford Internet Institute director, told the committee that social media propaganda includes the use of automated algorithms and big-data analytics refined to manipulate public opinion by using fake news, hacking and clickbait content.
Many senators honed in the automated algorithms — or bots — that dig into social media’s actual information architecture to push stories or pieces of information to the top of the social media space.
“Bot detection is an arms race,” Todd Helmus, behavioral scientist with the RAND Corporation, told lawmakers.
“This is nothing less than informational warfare,” said Sen. Marco Rubio.
The Florida Republican added that the assaults were carried out at minimum expense with maximum impact on “weakening our society’s ability to fight back.”
Separately, Senate Republicans on Wednesday defeated an attempt to allocate $250 million to states for “election security,” turning back what Democrats said would have been the first steps to combat foreign meddling in the midterms.
Needing 60 supporters, the amendment failed on a 50-47 vote, as part of a broader debate on a $154.2 billion spending package.
Republicans argued the states already have plenty of money for election security, as Congress included $380 million in state grants in a bill for 2018.
Democratic National Committee officials blasted Republicans and the Trump administration for failing to protect election security.
“The Trump administration has spent its time blaming others for poor election security, instead of bolstering funding, implementing additional sanctions, and telling the Kremlin that this behavior will not be tolerated,” said DNC Chief Technology Officer Bob Lord.
— David Sherfinski contributed to this report.
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