This article was originally published in the Progress-Index on 04/27/2019
FORT LEE — Saying it makes him “angry beyond words” to hear of less-than-desirable living conditions in on-post private housing, Sen. Mark R. Warner called for urgency Thursday in holding the builders of those residences accountable for cleaning and maintaining them.
Warner, D-Va., is co-sponsoring legislation that would increase oversight of those builders who have contracts with military installations to build the dwellings. He came to Fort Lee Thursday afternoon to meet with some of the homeowners and see some of the problems they are facing. Among the issues he saw and heard about were concerns about mold, infestations and overall miscommunication with the builders.
Earlier this year, the Military Family Advisory Network conducted preliminary research via survey and interviews regarding the quality of living in privatized military housing in the U.S. and published the findings in February. According to the report, of 16,779 responses, more than half indicated that they had negative or very negative experiences with privatized military housing. The respondents listed 35 property management companies. Common areas of concern included mold exposure, pest infestation, and structurally unsound homes, while the families felt like their concerns were being ignored. In some cases, the reports finds, families had to threaten legal action or medical impact for their situations to be remediated.
Of those responses, 18% came from families who live in housing maintained by Hunt Military Communities, the company that holds the contract with Fort Lee. Hunt has contracts with several other military installations, and the report did not specifically mention Fort Lee by name.
Amber Machado led Warner on a tour of the home she shares with her husband, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Machado and their young child. She showed him an ant infestation and algae growth on the exterior of the home, and four different types of flooring, evidence of damage to the walls from previous residents, and repairs that had been made well after they moved into their “move-in ready” home.
Amber Machado said they have expressed these and many other grievances to Hunt. For example, when the Machados went to have their washer installed, the laminate flooring adhesive that was already not installed properly was further exposed.
“Hunt’s solution to that was to clean it up with Magic Eraser,” said Nicholas Machado.
At the home of Staff Sgt. Brian Santos and his wife, Patricia, the senator was met with photo evidence of damages to the house. Patricia Santos said she noticed buckling in her floors in September 2018, caused by a leak that spread to her living room. In addition to the floors desperately needing replacement, the leak provided an ideal environment for mold growth, which she tried to get fixed as well.
“The contractor that they sent was not licensed or certified in the remediation of mold,” said Patricia Santos. “No plastic was ever placed around the area. When he lifted the flooring, the mold went everywhere: it went into my couches, into my carpets, onto my dining room table and into my kitchen.”
“It was September 2018 when we noticed the mold. [Hunt] did not finally fix everything until the sixth of April,” said Santos.
Warner, along with Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California, has introduced the Ensuring Safe Housing for our Military Act in March, in an effort to address the hazards present in privatized military housing. According to a press release by the senator regarding the announcement of the bill, provisions of the bill include basic allowance for housing costs and additional transparency for service members, creating “stronger oversight mechanisms, allow the military to withhold payments to contractors until issues are resolved.”
Immediately following the home tour, Warner held a roundtable to hear more from families about their living conditions.
The roundtable led to other military members expressing their issues with Hunt ranging from maintenance members coming in to make repairs without notice, to miscommunications within Hunt’s offices resulting in the military member not having any housing, to infants being hospitalized for respiratory issues due to mold. Throughout the meeting, Warner articulated his sympathy with the servicemembers and frustration with the private housing companies that often have lengthy contracts with the military bases and provide inadequate service.
“If I was living in a home with mold and had no recourse, it makes me angry beyond words.” Warner said. “We will make the systemic change, but if some of these folks have to go back with young kids to sleep tonight in a house with mold, there has to be this sense of urgency to get this changed.”
Warner’s stop at Fort Lee was part of a two-day visit to the Richmond area that included a walkthrough of the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, where evidence of a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog across the entire National Park Service manifests, as more than $700,000 in overdue maintenance needs have not been addressed.
Keeping our promise to Virginia's miners
By Sen. Mark R. Warner
In the Bristol Herald Courier
Standing up for our retired miners and their families has brought coal state Republicans and Democrats together in the past. Now, once again, it’s time for representatives from both parties to put partisanship aside and go to bat for Virginia’s miners — before it’s too late.
Earlier this year, a federal court allowed the Westmoreland Coal Co., which operated the Bullitt Mine in Wise County, to sever its United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) union contracts with current and former workers. Now, more than 1,200 miners and their dependents around the country, including some 500 here in Virginia, stand to lose their pensions and health care coverage.
Frankly, it’s a disgrace that a company can go to court and leave its workers out in the cold, so that the company’s creditors can continue to get paid. We do need to reform our bankruptcy system, but right now my main concern is making sure these miners and their families don’t lose their hard-earned benefits. While these miners have reached a temporary settlement with Westmoreland to extend their health care benefits for a few months, the fact is, they will be left with nothing if Congress does not act soon.
That’s why I’ve teamed up with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to introduce the American Miners Act. This bill would preserve the Westmoreland miners’ pensions and health benefits by making them eligible for benefits under the Coal Act fund — a program for “orphan” miners whose companies are no longer operating.
These are hard working men and women who have endured years of back-breaking work in order to fuel the economic success of our Commonwealth. Now it’s time for the federal government to deliver on the promise it made to our miners.
In 1946, the federal government, under President Truman, made a promise to protect the hard-earned retirement and health care benefits of UMWA miners — to honor their hard work and sacrifice.
This landmark agreement gave America’s miners the security they needed and deserved. Since that time, they’ve worked hard and done everything that has been asked of them.
Now it’s time for the federal government to hold up its end of the bargain — for the Westmoreland miners, and for the thousands of UMWA retirees whose pensions are still in jeopardy.
We are coming up on the two-year anniversary of our bipartisan victory securing healthcare benefits for more than 22,000 miners and their families. This was an important win for coal country, but our work is not done yet. The pensions our miners have earned are still on the chopping block, and recent coal company bankruptcies like Westmoreland’s threaten the progress we’ve made so far.
Passing the American Miners Act will make sure that miners’ healthcare benefits and pensions will be protected going forward.
We also need to recognize that both UMWA and non-union miners across Virginia have experienced hardships, as their families have lost hard-earned benefits. All Virginia miners and their families deserve to be treated fairly and receive the benefits they have earned during their career as miners.
One of the ways we can do this is by making sure we preserve resources for those miners who have developed black lung disease. The American Miners Act strengthens the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides critical benefits for thousands of retirees suffering from this deadly disease. Coal miners in Southwest Virginia have been some of the hardest hit by black lung, and Virginia is ground zero for the recent outbreak of advanced cases of the disease known as complicated black lung.
Unfortunately, Congressional Republican leadership allowed a key funding source for the trust fund to expire in December. If we fail to restore funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, miners struggling with this debilitating disease may not have access to the high-quality care they deserve, beginning as soon as next year.
It’s far past time to fix this problem. Our miners have paid their dues and earned their benefits. Now it’s our turn to secure their healthcare and pensions and shore up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.
The President campaigned on a promise to take care of our coal miners, and frankly, so did I. Now is the time for us all to leave our Republican and Democrat hats at the door and work together to get this done. The federal government must not turn its back on a generation of miners who risked their lives and health to fuel our nation.
Washington Post: Lawmakers want to ban ‘dark patterns,’ the Web designs tech companies use to manipulate you
Apr 09 2019
This article was originally published in the Washington Post on 04/10/2019
The bill is another salvo in a widening congressional effort to rein in the tech industry, whose data breaches and other privacy mishaps have prompted calls for tougher regulation of Silicon Valley.
The legislation, known as the DETOUR Act and introduced by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), zeroes in on a phenomenon known as “dark patterns”: The various ways in which Web designers subtly steer users toward completing certain transactions, such as signing up for an email newsletter, making a purchase or consenting to the collection or sharing of personal information.
The rise of dark patterns reflects how tech companies have increasingly turned human psychology into a moneymaking tool — at the expense of consumers’ ability to make truly informed choices, Fischer said in a statement.
“Misleading prompts to just click the ‘OK’ button can often transfer your contacts, messages, browsing activity, photos, or location information without you even realizing it,” she said.
On Tuesday, Warner launched into a series of tweets showing how dark patterns are commonly found across the Internet.
But dark patterns, and the logic behind them, are hardly a new idea. More than a decade ago, University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard University law professor Cass Sunstein helped shed light on the psychological aspects of decision-making with their 2008 book “Nudge.”
The book explored how “choice architecture,” or the way in which choices are presented to consumers, can powerfully shape their subsequent behavior. Examples included how, by automatically enrolling their employees in a 401(k), companies could help increase Americans’ retirement savings.
How companies ask consumers to make choices online is becoming increasingly important as more firms turn to personal data as a business model, analysts say. Nowhere is that more evident than in the tech industry, where giants such as Facebook and Google have built multibillion-dollar products out of the data that’s generated when users click on ads and enter search terms.
Without naming those businesses in particular, Tuesday’s bill appears to focus on the largest tech companies, aiming to make it illegal for firms with more than 100 million users to create user interfaces "with the purpose or substantial effect of obscuring, subverting, or impairing user autonomy, decision-making, or choice to obtain consent or user data.”
Under the proposal, tech companies would also be required to set up independent review boards akin to those on college campuses that oversee human research studies, in order to perform testing on user engagement.
“Our choice architectures are just completely muddled and clouded by the little tricks companies play to get you to consent, even though you may not want to,” said Paul Ohm, a law professor at Georgetown University, at a Washington conference on digital privacy Tuesday hosted by the Federal Trade Commission.
The Internet Association, a trade group that represents Silicon Valley’s biggest firms in Washington, declined to comment.
This editorial was originally published in the Daily Press on 03/25/2019
Even a handful of suicides each year would be too many. The real figure — more than 6,000 annually — is a haunting realization this country must continue to address mental health issues that persist among our nation’s military personnel, regardless of the visibility of the wars they
A concerted public health approach developed and implemented through public and private partners at the national, state and community levels is needed to tackle this complex problem.
The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act would be one solution toward that goal.
The legislation wending its way through Congress seeks to improve care by bolstering the Department of Veterans Affairs mental health workforce, increasing rural access to care and ensuring veterans have improved access to alternative treatment options such as animal therapy, outdoor sports, yoga and acupuncture.
The bill has bipartisan support that includes Virginia’s Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine as well as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas.
The legislation is named after Commander John Scott Hannon, a retired Navy SEAL from Montana who took his own life following a struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If approved, the bill would give the VA direct hiring authority over some mental health job categories and offer scholarships to mental health professionals as a way to entice them to work at veterans centers.
At least one suicide prevention coordinator would be placed at every VA hospital nationwide.
Veterans living in rural areas would be given greater access to telehealth services — where they can reach a medical professional over the phone or via a live chat — and provide grants to medical professionals to provide mental health services to veterans.
Innovative and alternative treatment options — such as access to animal, outdoor, or agri-therapy, yoga, meditation and acupuncture — would all be funded.
And ultimately, the VA would be held to greater account for the quality of services it provides, taking into account the wait times and red tape that can frustrate the people who seek care in such facilities.
We must help reduce veterans’ risk for suicide before those men and women feel they have exhausted their options and reached a crisis point.
Expansive networks that can reach veterans where they are will help bring desperate service members back from the brink.
These expanded programs will save lives if they are implemented correctly. That’s all we could ask for — services that are reliable and can address the individual needs of each veteran that has considered or attempted suicide.
These service members have performed countless duties to save our lives, and now we must do everything we can to save theirs.
An estimated 20 veterans die by suicide every day, even though their population has steadily decreased throughout the past decade. Of those deaths, 14 have received no treatment or care from the VA. That needs to change.
If you are a veteran considering suicide, please make a free, anonymous call to any Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone.
Or send a text message to 838255 to connect with a VA responder.
Begin a confidential online chat session at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat or find a VA facility near you by visiting bit.ly/vafacilitiesnearby.
A bounty of other resources can be found at veteranscrisisline.net.
Or, in you live on the Peninsula, consider visiting the Hampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center which operates a walk-in mental health clinic for any veteran in need of immediate help.
Veterans have given their time and talents to protecting this country. This country must show them just how treasured they are by keeping mental health services at the forefront of our consciousness.
This legislation will expand and bolster veterans services, but that does not mean veterans need to wait for it to pass before seeking help.
Now is the best time to take that initial step to speak with a mental health professional. It’s a path well worth the walk.
This Editorial was originally published in the Daily Progress on 03/22/2019
Given reports on the number of military veterans who take their own lives under the burdens of their mental and emotional injuries, such a basic level of care seems an obvious necessity.
But it isn’t a mandate. Not yet.
Virginia’s senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, are among the sponsors of legislation to improve the Veterans Administration’s response to mental health needs and suicide prevention.
The legislation, cosponsored with Sen Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, would help the VA add more mental health experts, increase access to care in rural areas, and expand access to “non-traditional” therapy options such as yoga and animal therapy — although we might argue that these modalities have been around long enough, and have proved effective enough, to no longer be considered as “alternative” treatments.
"We need to focus on new measures and new strategies in promoting mental health among veterans," Mr. Kaine said recently at the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
And not just new measures and strategies, but also additional staff to implement these strategies. The legislation would authorize the VA to hire more mental health professionals, and would place at least one suicide-prevention coordinator in every hospital. Access to mental health for veterans in rural areas would be addressed by expanding VA telehealth services.
The legislation also seeks to hold the VA accountable for how it provides care and how it manages its resources.
Suicide is a tragic and disturbing underside of veterans affairs. An oft-quoted statistic had been that, on average, 20 U.S. veterans daily took their own lives. Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs clarified that figure, saying that it referred to veterans, active-duty and other personnel combined.
The 2018 report cites the total as 20.6 suicides per day. Of these, 16.8 were veterans and 3.8 were active-duty service members, guardsmen and reservists, according to Stars and Stripes. That means 6,132 veterans and 1,387 service members die by suicide per year.
That number is shocking — and far, far too high.
“We’ve got to make sure that service members who’ve faithfully served our country receive the support they need when they transition to civilian life,” Mr. Warner said in a press statement.
And that sums it up well: America’s military men and women have given so much to serve our country, keep us safe at home and protect our nation’s interests abroad.
Indeed, those who have returned have sometimes given up almost everything in sacrifice — including their physical, mental and emotional health. If their trauma is so severe that it compels them to end their own lives just to escape the suffering, then they have given everything.
The nation owes them gratitude for their service, gratitude for their sacrifice — but it owes them much more. It owes them effective care, therapy, treatment and support to help them make the often difficult transition back into healthy living and civilian life.
The new veterans’ legislation strives to do just that. We support it.
This article was originally published in the Coalfield Progress on 03/17/2019
The bill would also protect healthcare coverage for 500 Virginia miners who are at risk of losing their benefits due to the 2018 bankruptcy of Westmoreland Coal Co., which operated in Wise County and had been a leading employer here for decades.
Currently, the 1974 UMWA Pension Plan is on the road to insolvency due to coal company bankruptcies and the 2008 financial crisis. Warner said the American Miners Act would shore up the pension plan to make sure that 87,000 current beneficiaries and an additional 20,000 retirees who have vested won’t lose the pensions they have paid into for decades, Warner's office said. In Virginia alone, there are approximately 7,000 pensioners who are at risk of losing their benefits if Congress does not act.
In May 2017, Warner worked with several colleagues to pass bipartisan legislation to protect healthcare for retired miners — including more than 10,000 miners and their families in Virginia — who were orphaned by coal bankruptcies. But the recent Westmoreland bankruptcy has endangered health care benefits for additional miners and dependents — including 500 people in Virginia. This legislation will extend the fix to ensure that miners who are at risk due to 2018 coal company bankruptcies will not lose their healthcare.
Lastly, the bill also calls for an extension of the tax that finances medical treatment and basic expenses for miners suffering from black lung. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is supported by an excise tax on mined coal that was cut in half at the end of 2018. The American Miners Act of 2019 would restore the tax to previous levels for 10 years.
Locally, the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance had supported the cut and advocated against an extension.
This editorial originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on March 14, 2019.
While the Richmond region boasts an impressive number of grocery stores — especially in the wealthier, fast-growing suburbs — sadly not all residents can enjoy the wide array of shopping options. In fact, across Virginia and the United States there is often an unfortunate lack of proximity to grocery stores in low-income and low-access rural and urban communities.
An estimated 1 million Virginians live in so-called food deserts — areas with no grocery stores within one mile in urban regions and within 10 miles in rural communities. Nationally, that figure is estimated at a dangerously high 37 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s about 11 percent of the country’s population, a distressing figure two decades into the 21st century. People who live in communities where it’s hard to find affordable, fresh food face higher risks for obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Two Virginia Democratic lawmakers are part of a bipartisan effort to increase access to grocery stores in underserved areas by providing tax credits and grants to food service providers such as grocers, retailers and nonprofits. U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner and U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin are again among the sponsors of the Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act, which seeks to offer incentives to eliminate food deserts. The bill was introduced two years ago but didn’t clear the last session of Congress. No cost estimates are yet available.
“Families in Virginia must be able to count on reliable access to healthy and affordable foods no matter where they live,” Warner said in a statement. Hunger and food insecurity need to be addressed, McEachin agreed: “Access to healthy, nutritious food should not be dependent on geography.”
The act defines a grocery market as a retail sales store with at least 35 percent of its items dedicated to selling fresh produce, poultry, dairy and deli offerings. As McEachin has previously explained on these pages, the bill would create a system of incentives to help companies and nonprofits build, improve or operate grocery stores, farmers’ markets and food banks in underserved areas. The bill hopes to spark investment in especially hard-pressed areas that have a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher or a median family income of less than 80 percent of the regional or statewide median.
Food deserts are a chronic problem in the Richmond region, one that threatens the overall well-being of its residents and can cause a slew of ill effects. According to the USDA, 60,545 Richmond residents lived in a food desert in 2015. That figure was almost 38,000 for Henrico, nearly 16,000 for Petersburg and just over 14,000 for Chesterfield.
“Food deserts disproportionately impact low-income communities, creating additional barriers for our neighbors to achieve healthy, productive lives. This legislation is a huge step in the right direction and offers tremendous opportunity to bring new investment to communities that need it most,” said Eddie Oliver, executive director of the Federation of Virginia Food Banks.
We applaud The Market@25th, the new grocery store in Richmond’s distressed East End that’s backed by businessman and philanthropist Steve Markel. The area is home to four large public housing communities — Mosby, Whitcomb, Fairfield and Creighton courts — yet lacked a major grocery store. Many of the residents live in poverty. But now they have a convenient place to buy vegetables, fruits and other healthy foods.
In this land of plenty, no citizen should live without easy access to fresh, affordable food. Not everyone can drive to a nearby Wegmans, Publix or Kroger, or walk to a local farmer’s market. Not everyone lives on a bus line. Healthy communities need good choices that are readily available. We urge Congress to pass the legislation into law.
— Pamela Stallsmith
Here’s How You Make a Deal, Mr. President
By Sen. Mark R. Warner
In the Wall Street Journal
Donald Trump ran for president telling a story of business prowess—the author of “The Art of the Deal” would come to Washington and solve the problems the politicians couldn’t. Two years later, the longest government shutdown on record is revealing gaping cracks in his facade.
Like the president, I’ve spent more time in business than in politics. In 20-plus years as an executive and investor, I did very well closing deals, building companies and creating jobs. As governor and a senator, I’ve relied on my business experience to get things done. Every day the shutdown drags on, it becomes clearer the president never learned lessons that successful executives know by heart:
• Always try to find a solution in which both sides come out ahead. Mr. Trump has refused to compromise or negotiate. As a result, he’s increasingly isolated in his demand that Congress fund his border wall. Each day it gets harder to find a face-saving solution to end his pointless standoff.
• Don’t surround yourself with yes men. You need smart experts who aren’t afraid to tell you when they think you’re making a mistake. Mr. Trump relies on a circle of sycophants, far-right lawmakers, and TV and radio hosts who either share his views or won’t voice their disagreements.
• Empower the people on your team. The president has made it clear that no one can credibly speak on his behalf. First, he indicated before Christmas that he would sign a continuing resolution the Senate unanimously passed—only to oppose the bill, leaving the majority leader holding the bag. He sent Mike Pence to the Hill to make an offer—then kneecapped the vice president by rejecting the proposal on national television. Later he undercut an attempt at negotiation by his Senate whisperer Lindsey Graham. The result? The President is left with nobody who can make sure the job gets done.
• Never burn bridges. Successful business leaders know that if a deal goes south, another is always around the corner. Mr. Trump has been so vicious during the shutdown that he might have crippled his ability to get things done in Congress. The White House keeps saying it wants to cut bipartisan deals on issues like infrastructure, but the president’s behavior suggests that he’ll continue to treat congressional Democrats the way he treated the contractors he stiffed on so many of his real-estate projects.
• Respect your workforce. When I was governor, we had to make painful cuts to balance the budget, which meant asking employees to do more with less. I made every effort to spend time with those affected and listen to their concerns. In contrast, Mr. Trump has shown no empathy for the 800,000 public servants who are going without pay. He’s been downright cavalier when asked how thousands of my constituents are supposed to pay their bills while he holds them hostage.
I don’t know how much longer this is going to go on, or how it’s going to end. But I do know this: Business-school professors and management consultants will have a case study of a self-proclaimed deal-maker with some of the worst negotiating and management instincts of all time.
Mr. Warner, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Virginia.
The reason I believe William Barr’s nomination should be withdrawn has little to do with his experience. As attorney general for President George H.W. Bush, he has long been well-respected within the legal community. But the nominee for our nation’s highest law enforcement position must be measured by more than his résumé.
Nor is this a question of politics — which party can “win” Barr’s confirmation fight — but rather a question of character and fidelity to the Constitution. Will Mr. Barr rise to the defining challenge for an attorney general in the Trump era and defend the rule of law?
Based on his actions in the months before his nomination, I believe the answer is no.
Last June, Mr. Barr wrote a secret, unsolicited memo attacking special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential obstruction of justice by the president, which Mr. Barr then passed to administration officials.
In November, President Donald Trump fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions after months of public abuse over the Mueller investigation. For a temporary replacement, he chose Matt Whitaker, whose primary qualification appears to be an op-ed he wrote decrying the scope of the Mueller probe.
With Mr. Barr’s nomination, it has become clear that the president’s sole concern is choosing a new attorney general who will shield him from the special counsel’s investigation. And Mr. Barr’s memo looks much more like a job application.
Special counsel Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s attack on our democracy has led to numerous indictments and convictions, including that of the president’s own campaign chairman. It must continue free from political interference until it gets to the truth.
In the meantime, our country deserves better than an attorney general who auditioned for the job by attacking that investigation. Under our constitutional system, no one is above the law, not even the president. We need an attorney general willing to vigorously defend this principle.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is vice chair of the Intelligence Committee.
Blavity Op-ed: Black Americans Were Russia's Top Target For Voter Suppression In 2016. Here Are 3 Ways To Ensure It Doesn't Happen Again.
Jan 09 2019
Black Americans Were Russia's Top Target For Voter Suppression In 2016. Here Are 3 Ways To Ensure It Doesn't Happen Again.
by Senator Mark R. Warner
In the wake of the 2018 election, our country is finally having an overdue conversation about voter suppression. It takes many forms — discriminatory voter ID laws, shady voter roll purges and racially gerrymandered electoral maps, just to name a few.
But over the past two years, we have learned of yet another threat to voters, and Black Americans in particular — this one from beyond our borders. In 2016, Russia attacked our democracy using cyber-attacks and a massive disinformation campaign via social media.
As Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, I’ve helped lead the investigation into Russian election interference efforts. Perhaps the most disturbing detail we’ve uncovered in our investigation thus far is that Russians specifically targeted the Black community to sow division and suppress voter turnout.
But in recent reports commissioned by our committee, researchers found that Russia’s efforts to target Black Americans were much more sophisticated and systematic than previously known.
In fact, we now know that the Black community was the top target of the Kremlin’s misinformation campaign. Russia employed an army of paid internet trolls who posed as Black Americans on 30 Facebook pages, with over 1.1 million total followers.
Our investigation found a troubling pattern of Russian operatives mimicking legitimate online organizing efforts taking place in communities of color. Russian-backed Facebook posts exploited the Black Lives Matter movement and pitted Americans against each other on issues including race, religion and gun violence. They attempted to build online relationships with legitimate Black media figures and outlets, and even tried to recruit unwitting Americans as Russian intelligence assets.
Using ads as well as organic content, they built their social media followings around political issues related to racial justice, as well as non-political issues like supporting Black-owned businesses.
But as the election approached, these accounts began to change their message. According to the reports, they started posting content pushing “several varieties of voter suppression narratives.” By the end, they were even posting memes encouraging “African Americans for Hillary” to stay home and “vote by text.”
Unfortunately, these racist efforts are not a new strategy for the Russians. During the Cold War, the KGB tried to spread "fake news" smearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Russian intelligence officers were responsible for concocting the rumor that the AIDS virus was developed by the CIA to target non-whites.
But what’s different today is that social media makes it much easier to start and spread misinformation on a scale that the Soviets could never have dreamed of.
In that way, social media is truly a double-edged sword — the same online tools that in many ways gave rise to important movements like Black Lives Matter were also used by Russia to carry out information operations against Black Americans.
Defending against our adversaries’ attempts to exploit racial tensions via social media is an issue both of justice and national security. And it will take all of us — the federal government, platform companies like Facebook and Google, and the American people united together — to combat this threat.
Here are three steps we can take right now:
1. End domestic voter suppression and address injustices at home: The truth is, Russia’s racist propaganda efforts have long attempted to exploit real injustices and racial divisions here in the United States, and 2016 was no exception. So long as Black Americans’ civil rights are under threat from politicians here in the United States, Russia will seek to exploit that to its advantage. In this sense, making real progress on issues like voting rights, economic fairness, and criminal justice reform is not only the right thing to do — it is essential to our national security.
2. Combat social media misinformation and disinformation: Social media companies should work with Congress to develop common-sense regulations protecting users from foreign adversaries and other bad actors. I’ve put forward a number of proposals as a starting point. For example, I think folks have a right to know if an account they’re interacting with is a bot, or if someone posing online as Mark from Virginia is actually Boris from St. Petersburg.
3. Stand up to foreign cyberaggression abroad: We need to aggressively deter and respond to cyberattacks and information operations carried out by Russia and other adversaries. To that end, we should clearly articulate a society-wide cyber doctrine and be willing to defend ourselves in cyberspace. When foreign adversaries attack our democracy and our fellow Americans, there must be consequences.
Finally, we must deny Russia and other adversaries what they most desire — a further fracturing of our society and our democracy. At the end of the day, the best way to stand up to this cynical, disgusting attempt to undermine our democracy and suppress your vote is to continue making your voice heard at the ballot box and in the community.