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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 Blavity

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.

This op-ed was originally published in USA TODAY on August 1, 2018.

  

Do you ever stop to think about how much our world has changed just in the past few years?

Today, some of the largest and most powerful companies in the world — Google, Facebook and Twitter, to name a few — build and rely on technology that didn’t even exist a decade or two ago, dramatically transforming our society along the way.

As someone who was in the tech business longer than I’ve been in the Senate, I’m a big believer in the power of technology to improve people’s lives. I was living out of my car when I founded my first cell phone company. I later founded Nextel, and in the years since I’ve had a front row seat to the ways the phones in our pockets have changed the world.

But anyone who’s ever told their kids to put their cell phones away at dinner knows technological advances sometimes come with unintended consequences — and social media is no exception.

 

We need to learn from our internet failures

Over the past year and a half, Sen. Richard Burr and I have led the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation into Russia’s attack on the 2016 election, uncovering the unprecedented ways Russia abused social media to divide Americans against each other and undermine our democratic process.

In many ways our intelligence community was caught off guard by this new threat. But with each new story about fake news, bots, trolls or Facebook’s mishandling of 87 million Americans’ private data, it has become even clearer that these social media companies were caught flat-footed — unable or unwilling to predict, detect or stop the abuse of their platforms.

Americans are increasingly expressing concern over how their data is being used, and whether they maintain control over their digital identities. As some of these companies have grown to the point of dominance, we’ve reached the point where one company’s mistake can have society-wide consequences.

I believe a national conversation about these issues is long overdue. The companies, the federal government, and individuals all share in the responsibility to make sure these great American technologies continue to work for the good of our county and its citizens.

>That conversation has to start with companies taking responsibility for their platforms and the potential for their abuse. Common-sense rules of the road for social media — like labeling bots and preventing the use of false identities and fake accounts — is a great place to start.

We also need to recognize that our every like, retweet, and search query leaves a trail of data unique to each American on the internet. We have not yet had a national debate about who should own that data, and what responsibility the companies who profit from it have to their users. It’s time we ask ourselves if Americans have the right to exercise greater control over their own data, and whether that right can be signed away simply by clicking an “I agree” button at the bottom of a screen full of indecipherable legalese.

This week, I released a set of 20 proposals, which I believe are a good starting point for this overdue debate on the future of our nation’s technology policy. Should public interest researchers have access to closely-held company data so that they can help identify problems early? Should data be portable and systems interoperable, allowing users to take their accounts to a competitor without losing all their content? Should the platforms be held responsible in some way for removing provably false content?

Government must have some role in answering these important questions, but it must also make sure regulation doesn’t stifle innovation. Congress also needs to substantially improve its understanding of technology in order to make smart laws.

 

Past time to adapt our laws for the tech age 

I have hope that we can strike the right balance. Last year, I introduced the Honest Ads Act with Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., John McCain, R-Ariz., which creates some modest transparency rules for online political advertisements. Facebook and Twitter used our legislation as a road map to create their own ad transparency tools, and I hope Congress will pass this still-needed legislation.

But at the end of the day, the responsibility lies in the hands of every American to decide the roles and responsibilities of technology in our lives, our economy, and our democracy. We should all strive to be active digital citizens — skeptical of what we read on the internet, protective of our private data, and vigilant against cybercriminals, foreign adversaries, and other bad actors who would do us harm.

And we should begin, belatedly, to address the challenge of adapting our laws and regulations to new technology and business practices. The American people have risen to every technological challenge we’ve faced as a nation, and I have faith that the challenges of the digital age will be no exception.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Follow him on Twitter: @MarkWarner

This op-ed was originall published in the Times of London on July 16, 2018. Damian Collins is chair of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee, and MP for Folkestone and Hythe 

The Internet Research Agency in St Petersburg knows that just like a computer or biological virus, information spreads from one person to another and through mass media to millions. In co-ordinated campaigns, multiple messengers act together to help stories go viral. 

The greater the control over the way in which the message is conveyed, the stronger the influence on the target audience and therefore the more likely the virus will take hold and be successfully shared. 

Using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Russia has an active strategy to infect our western democracies with campaigns of disinformation, with the purpose of spreading doubt and confusion, turning communities against each other and undermining confidence in our public institutions. 

Thanks to the hearings in the United States congress we know that during the 2016 presidential election the Russians ran over 3,000 adverts on Facebook and Instagram to promote 120 Facebook pages in a campaign that reached 126 million Americans. 

In further evidence from Facebook given to the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) select committee which I chair, we know that the Russians used sophisticated targeting techniques and created customised audiences to amplify extreme voices in the campaign, particularly those on sensitive topics like race relations and immigration. 

Facebook evidence to the select committee also shows that the Russians ran anti-immigration ads targeting users in the UK in the run up to the Brexit referendum. Twitter has confirmed that the Internet Research Agency had active accounts targeting British voters during the referendum as well. 

A joint research project by the Universities of Swansea and UC Berkeley in California identified 156,252 Russian accounts tweeting about #Brexit and that they posted over 45,000 Brexit messages in the last 48 hours of the campaign. 

Further research by the consultancy 89up has shown that the Kremlin-backed media outlets RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik had more reach on Twitter for anti-EU content than either Vote Leave or Leave.EU, during the referendum campaign. 

Yet this analysis is based on looking at accounts we can easily trace back to Russia, but there may be many more. I recently met with the head of cybersecurity at a major UK bank who told me that they are regularly attacked from Russia, but that increasingly this is done by hacking first into servers based in the UK from which the operation is launched. This action is taken to deliberately try and hide the fact that the attack originated in Russia. 

In addition to this direct Russian interference in elections, the DCMS committee has also received evidence the leading political donor to the Brexit cause Arron Banks had previously undisclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador and businessmen where possible gold and diamond deals were discussed, although Mr Banks has said that nothing came of these conversations. 

Backdoor meetings between Russian businessmen and politicians would appear to belong in a spy movie. But they’re happening in real life and in centre stage. There is a moral imperative to shine a light on them. 

Mr Banks? Why did he downplay the importance of these discussions to our committee? Most importantly — and many have asked — where did Mr Banks get the money to help fund Brexit? 

We also know that the man at the centre of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scraping scandal, Dr Aleksandr Kogan who was born in the former Soviet Union, was also working at the same time on a project on cyberbullying at the University of St Petersburg, which was sponsored by the Russian government. 

Dr Kogan’s work is being investigated by the UK Information Commissioner and they believed that the Facebook data he gathered may have been accessed by third parties in other countries, including Russia. 

In the Darwinian battle of ideas being played out in the news feeds of millions of social media account holders, there is no guarantee that the truth will be a more successful virus than a campaign of disinformation. 

If anything, the burden of the truth, to inform and persuade, is much greater than a campaign of lies designed to merely shock and confuse. This is a potent threat and we need to do more to act together to defeat it. That is why I am attending a special conference being organised by the Atlantic Council in Washington today discussing the Kremlin’s interference in elections. 

This event is bringing together politicians from around the world who have been leading investigations into these issues, including the United States senators Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, and Bob Zimmer and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith from the House of Commons of Canada. 

In 1941 Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter setting out their ambitions for the new world order after the war. This included in clause three of the charter that nations should “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live”. 75 

In upholding that principle we believe in liberty, democracy and the rule of law, which in both the USA and Britain guards against foreign interference in our politics and elections. 

Yet the mounting evidence of how Russia is using social media to spread fake news and disinformation, shows how easily this principle in the Atlantic Charter is being breached. 

Today we need to renew that Charter for the digital age, underlining our commitment to act against the attack by Russia on our democracies and establishing the responsibilities as well of the major tech companies to provide real transparency to users on where the messages they are seeing are originating from. 

In addition to this, there needs to be more action against accounts that are proven to be spreading campaigns of disinformation, and to stop foreign agencies from running political adverts during our election campaigns. 

This op-ed was originally published in USA TODAY on July 12, 2018

The Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report last week concurring with the U.S. intelligence community’s unanimous assessment that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a massive influence campaign aimed at the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The attack included the targeting of election infrastructure, email hacks, weaponized leaks, overt propaganda and a covert, large-scale disinformation effort on social media feeds like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

In many ways, this threat is not new. The Kremlin has been conducting information warfare or “active measures” against the West for decades. What is new, however, are social media tools with the reach and power to magnify propaganda and false information with a scale and precision that would have been unimaginable back in the days of the Berlin Wall.

The Soviet Politburo could only have dreamed of the capability Russia now has to target voters directly in the U.S., Europe and other democracies with propaganda, misinformation and disinformation. Twenty-first century social media tools have the potential to further erode public confidence in western institutions and undermine the shared sense of facts that is supposed to be the foundation of honest political debate.

In 2016, we were taken by surprise. In 2018, there are no excuses. We must be ready.

Message to Russia as Trump meets Putin

That is why we are teaming up with legislators from Canada and Europe to sound the alarm. Following this week’s NATO summit, parliamentarians from across Europe and North America will meet Monday in Washington, D.C., the same day President Donald Trump and Putin meet in Helsinki.

Our goal must be to demonstrate to the world that the community of democratic nations does not intend to accede to Putin’s or any other authoritarian’s view of the world. We will resist Russia’s aggression. As legislators, we have a responsibility to address that threat — particularly on social media.

First, as elected officials, we have a duty to use our positions to shine a light on Russia’s actions and capabilities. Utilizing our investigative tools and public platforms, legislators must expose the full scale and scope of Russia’s schemes to weaken democracies.

The two of us are currently engaged in a bipartisan effort in the Senate Intelligence Committee to uncover Russia’s activities during the 2016 elections and publicly detail its array of asymmetric capabilities. Similarly, our colleagues in the British Parliament, led by Damian Collins, are conducting an inquiry on “fake news” and how it was used by both foreign and domestic actors to influence the Brexit vote.

But it is not enough simply to shine a bright light on Russian aggression. As legislators, we also are responsible for crafting and passing laws to protect our democracy while also preserving freedom of expression.

More: Donald Trump is right to question NATO

Don't call it 'meddling.' The Russians attacked our democracy.

Blame social media for making us more hasty and emotional. Can we fix this?

There is little doubt that our own government and our laws have not kept pace with technological change. The magnitude of this challenge is poised only to expand with improvements in artificial intelligence, machine learning and related advancements like “deep fake” video manipulation. This technology can literally put words in someone’s mouth, creating a false narrative that can spread across the globe in minutes.

As our committee’s work has helped to establish, a key goal of Russian disinformation is to fracture the ability of open societies to reach social and political consensus — an objective significantly furthered when Americans can no longer "their lying eyes." If we hope to stay resilient against these threats, we’re going to need laws that keep up.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has put forward several bipartisan proposals to improve election security and ensure that the intelligence community does a better job of tracking, sharing and responding to efforts by any foreign power to influence our elections, including through social media.These include making clear to adversaries that we consider attacking our election infrastructure a hostile act and will respond accordingly, and to states that they should replace outdated and vulnerable voting systems as quickly as possible.

As stewards of oversight, we also have a responsibility to ensure our respective governments are ready to track and attack the ongoing threat from influence operations. In the U.S., we are not convinced that the national security community is currently organized to adequately rise to this challenge. 

Informed public best defense against Russia

Finally, we have a responsibility as public officials to raise awareness and ensure that the voting public are fully informed of how our adversaries are trying to manipulate us. At the end of the day, there is really no better defense against Russian aggression on social media than an informed citizenry — a voting public that is fully aware of the Kremlin’s attempts to divide us from within and rejects them.

But social media companies also have a civic responsibility to prevent abuse from proliferating on their platforms and to inform users when they’ve been exposed to it.

We in the U.S. have much to learn about Russian tactics from our allies across the Atlantic who have been, and continue to be, on the front lines of Russian information operations. Vladimir Putin wants to divide us — both internally, here at home, and externally, from our transatlantic friends. Next week, legislators from across the NATO alliance will send him a strong and direct message that it won’t work.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is a member of the Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees. Follow them on Twitter: @MarkWarner and @marcorubio

On March 1, 2018, Senator Warner delivered the keynote address at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's launch of the Global Russia Project. Video of the speech and text of Senator Warner's remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:

Historic Context

After the Berlin Wall fell, the United States reached out to the “new Russia” under Yeltsin and attempted to bring it into the western community of nations. We, perhaps naively, assumed that Russia’s eventual integration into institutions like the G7 and the EU was both natural and inevitable. Many of us imagined that, after the failure of communism, the allure and the success of western, free-market democracy would attract and breed success further east. At the same time, we watched as Russia’s conventional military capabilities atrophied and its economy stagnated, and concluded that the Russian threat was reduced.  Facing this changed world, we declared victory in the Cold War, and moved on. 

We turned our focus from superpower rivalry to counterterrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the challenges emanating from failed states. We worked to track, chase and kill terrorists around the world. This was a logical and understandable transformation, given the 9/11 attack, and other threats to our security posed by failing states. However, there was a cost to these decisions – and we took our eyes off the re-emerging threat posed by Russia.

What we did not imagine at the time – and perhaps we should have – was the resentment many Russians felt at the economic uncertainties of the free market… the chaos and inflation that wiped out life savings… the corruption of a small clique of oligarchs… and the loss of the Soviet Union’s superpower status.

These feelings fed directly into ordinary Russians’ desire for stability and their disenchantment with the Russian experiment with democracy, ultimately entrenching President Putin’s authority. 

Meanwhile, Putin continued to nurse a grudge against the West. He called the demise of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” He used his growing control of television, the press, film, and popular culture to stoke and encourage Russian disillusionment.

Putin relied on these powers to boost his standing with the Russian public and breed a new Russian nationalism. And he began an ambitious program of rearmament – all with the aim of challenging the United States and the global order.

So while our gaze shifted away from Russia – which we began to write off as a “regional power” – Russia never really lost focus on us. Its geo-strategic aim remained squarely targeted on the western liberal order, and more specifically, on what its KGB-trained leadership still views as the “Main Enemy” – the United States.

So Russia diligently honed and updated its toolkit for a different kind of Great Power rivalry. They couldn’t match us in the old Cold War paradigm, so Russia needed a strategy that would allow them to compete with us on the new emerging battlefield. Russia’s Chief of General Staff, General Valéry Gerasimov, gave Putin exactly what he needed. 

 

Gerasimov and Hybrid War

General Gerasimov outlined a new security doctrine for the Kremlin – one that was more suited to the type of fight they could win, and one that could bring Russia back on par with the West.

He recognized a “blurring” of the lines between war and peace in the 21st century. He emphasized “non-military means” … “informational conflict” … and measures of a “concealed character.” Gerasimov outlined a vision for Russia’s military doctrine that relies not just on the conventional military, but on asymmetric means.

In Gerasimov’s vision, hacking, cyberattacks, information warfare, and propaganda would be the weapons of choice. He painted a vivid picture of a fight in the shadows – a type of “hybrid warfare.” It is a fight the Kremlin is intent on winning. 

Putin quickly went to work implementing the doctrine across the border in Ukraine, employing “little green men” and information warfare to create a state of perpetual chaos and instability. He also targeted Estonia and Georgia, and continued to invest in the types of deniable, asymmetric tools that would help him overcome the West’s more traditional advantages. He has now aimed those weapons directly at the United States, and we are inadequately prepared to defend ourselves.

 

Today’s Asymmetric Weapons

In recent months, Senator Cardin and the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delivered an extremely well researched report on Russia’s asymmetric assault on European democracies. They outline a comprehensive array of weapons in the Kremlin toolkit, including the use of organized crime, corruption, energy security, and even the Russian Orthodox Church to increase Russian influence. We don’t have time to get into all of those today, but I recommend that everyone read Senator Cardin’s excellent report.

What I do want to address today are the three main avenues of attack that Russia employed during the 2016 election: the targeting of election infrastructure; the hacking and weaponized leaks; and information warfare. The Senate Intelligence Committee – on a bipartisan basis – is intently focused on each of these three areas.

First, the beauty and curse of our voting system is that it is fragmented and decentralized. But that thought is less comforting than it might seem, since non-national elections can often come down to a few hundred votes, and even Presidential elections can be decided by a few thousand votes in one swing county in one battleground state. 

And even the threat of potential Russian incursions is enough to undermine public confidence in our electoral process. The Russians have tremendous cyber capacities, and we still have much work to do to ensure that our elections infrastructure can withstand anything the Russians or others might try. 

Second, the Kremlin has gone to great lengths to foster one of the most permissive environments for malicious cyber activity in the world today, including hacking and weaponized leaks. While Putin maintains some of the most prolific state-sponsored cyber capabilities, much of his active measures have not been state-led.

The Kremlin is able to employ, co-opt, and at times, compel assistance from a detached corps of non-governmental hackers that Russia has nurtured, and now harbors from international law enforcement.\

Rather than being always government-employed and taking direction top-down, these hackers are generally free to engage in criminal activity and money-making endeavors around the globe… as long as they keep their activities focused away from the private accounts of Russian oligarchs.

When it suits them, Putin and his cronies are able to utilize these capabilities to further their own active measures campaigns, while allowing the Kremlin to deny any involvement. Putin himself has trolled us here in the states by denying meddling during the U.S. election, but allowing for the possibility that, quote, “Russian patriotic hackers” may have done something. 

Hacking is obviously not unique to the Kremlin; however, weaponizing leaks from those hacks is a growing part of the Russian playbook.

The truth is, we should have seen this coming a lot sooner. Recall in 2014, when a bugged phone conversation between then-Assistant Secretary of State Toria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine made its way onto YouTube, where it caused a diplomatic uproar. In retrospect, we should have seen this incident as a test-run for the types of attacks and leaks we saw during the 2016 Presidential campaign.  

Third, the Kremlin is also making an unprecedented investment in 21st century information warfare.

During the Cold War, the Soviets tried to spread “fake news” that the U.S. government was involved in Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and that the American military had manufactured the AIDS virus. Much like today, their aim was to undermine Americans’ faith in democratic government. 

But the widespread use of social media has allowed Russia to super-charge its disinformation efforts. Before, the KGB had to go through the tedious, time-consuming process of starting a newspaper in a neutral country, or crafting a dubious forgery that would ultimately be seen by a very small audience. 

Now they have instantaneous access to hundreds of millions of social media accounts where propaganda and fake news can spread like wildfire. While we all recognize the power and value of social media platforms, from the viewpoint of a hostile intelligence organization, they are nearly ideal vehicles for information warfare. 

The rise of new platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has reshaped our entire culture, and the ways we communicate and access information. But while we marveled at the new opportunities offered by this technology, our government and the companies themselves were slow to appreciate the ramifications of offering free and almost instantaneous access to millions and millions of Americans, and the degree to which these platforms could be abused.

Tracking the impact of Russian disinformation is inherently difficult. One 2011 Russian operations manual suggests that disinformation “acts like an invisible radiation,” silently and covertly pushing you in the direction that the Kremlin wants. But you don’t even know you are being attacked.

That’s how the Russians were able to target and co-opt unwitting Americans into spreading their content online. They even succeeded in transferring these efforts from Facebook into the real world – at one point, spurring a pair of dueling rallies at an Islamic center in Houston. The Russians succeeded in pitting Americans against Americans from a troll factory half a world away.

 

The Threat Continues and Expands

These active measures have two things in common: They are effective, and they are cheap.

We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars on national security, and in this arena, we’re on our heels. The Kremlin is spending pennies on the dollar, and wreaking havoc.

Worse still, they haven’t stopped. The fact is, this threat did not go away on Election Day. Russian operatives remain active today, stoking hate and discord online.

We saw Russian-linked accounts pushing hashtags on both sides of the NFL national anthem debate. We’ve seen them attack the President’s National Security Advisor. We saw them push the “Release The Memo” controversy. More recent reports suggest that they were even stoking anger on both sides of the gun debate after the Parkland shooting.  

And now that this playbook is out in the open, we have to worry about more than just the Russians.  These tools can be used by other actors across the board – China, non-state actors, and terrorists.

 

What Can We Do?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers in this space – no single counter-measure that will stop this wave of attacks from Russia.

As the premise of Carnegie’s Global Russia Project notes, Russia seeks to take advantage where it can to amplify internal divisions. It is focused on boosting cynicism and tearing down Western institutions from the inside.

In response, we need to start right here at home. We need to recognize the threat, expose Putin’s game-plan and inoculate our society against these efforts.

In order to do that, we need to understand the Russian playbook and deliver a thorough accounting of what they did in 2016. This is why our Committee investigation, as well as the Mueller inquiry, is so critical. We have to get to the bottom of what happened, and we need to do so in a bipartisan way. Politicization will only undermine the American public’s understanding of the threat.

The question of whether any Americans knew about or assisted Russian efforts in 2016 is vital. However, it is only one part of the important work our committee is doing. This is not about Democrats or Republicans – this is about defending Americans and our institutions from a foreign attack.

Next, we have to recognize that we have much work to do to strengthen our security against these asymmetric threats. Our strategies and our resources have not shifted aggressively enough to target these new threats in cyberspace and on social media.

Russia spends about $70 billion a year on their military. We spend ten times that. But we’re spending it mostly on weapons designed to win wars that take place in the air, on land, and at sea.  And while we need to have these conventional capabilities, we must also expand our toolkit so that we can win on all the battlefields of the 21st century. Until we do that, Russia is going to continue getting a lot more bang for its security buck. 

No one questions that America possesses superior technological capability. But ironically, our technological dependence makes us more vulnerable on the asymmetrical battlefield where Russia attacks us.

We must spell out a deterrence doctrine, so that our adversaries don’t see cyberattacks against us as a “free lunch.” The U.S. has often done too little to respond to cyberattacks against us or our allies. When we do respond, it has often been done quietly, and on a one-off basis. That has clearly not been enough to deter our adversaries.

We need to make clear to Russia and other nations, that if you go after us using cyberweapons or disinformation, we’re going to call you out, and we’re going to punch back.

We need to more quickly attribute cyber-attacks. And we need to increase their costs with robust sanctions and other tools. That should include the sanctions against Russia passed overwhelmingly by Congress, but which the President has refused to implement.

The sad truth is, we are handicapped in our response by a lack of Presidential leadership. We need a president who recognizes this problem, not one who sees any discussion of Russian election interference as an affront. We need a president who will lead not just a whole-of-government effort, but a whole-of-society effort, to protect our institutions. We need someone who will unite our country against this threat. 

We can’t let Putin and his allies succeed. We have to – as a nation – learn how to fight back and shine a light on this shadow conflict. We have to get our act together here at home. Otherwise, we’ll still be shooting blindly into the shadows.

###

WASHINGTON — Today U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, spoke on the floor of the U.S. Senate to warn of threats to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and highlight the constitutional crisis that would likely ensue if the President were to interfere in the Mueller probe. In recent weeks, a growing chorus of voices in Congress, the media, and the White House have begun pushing a coordinated narrative undermining the credibility of the Special Counsel’s investigation and the FBI itself. Sen. Warner today responded to these “troubling” signs that the President may be considering firing Mr. Mueller or top FBI/DOJ brass, pardoning potential witnesses, or otherwise interfering in Mueller’s investigation.

Sen. Warner called on Senators from both parties to “make a clear and unambiguous statement: that any attempt by this President to remove Special Counsel Mueller from his position, or to pardon key witnesses in an effort to shield them from accountability or shut down the investigation, would be a gross abuse of power and a flagrant violation of Executive branch responsibilities and authorities.”

He continued: “These are red lines, and we simply cannot allow them to be crossed.”

Senator Warner’s remarks as prepared for delivery follow:

 

Mr. President – 

I rise today concerned about threats to the Special Counsel’s critical investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

Over the last several weeks, a growing chorus of irresponsible and reckless voices have called for President Trump to shut down Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.  At first, these calls came from the fringes of our political discourse – those who would refuse to put our country and our security before base political instincts.  Earlier this year, many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle were right to push back on those misdirected calls and urge that the Special Counsel be allowed to do his job without interference.   

However, in recent weeks, those voices seem to be growing in stridency and in volume. Just this weekend, one major news organization suggested that Special Counsel Mueller could be involved in a “coup” against this President.  One senior advisor at the White House has now outrageously alleged, “The fix was in against Donald Trump from the beginning.” 

These statements are reckless. They are inappropriate. And they are extremely worrying.

They are also at odds with the President’s own lawyers, who have pledged to cooperate with the Special Counsel.

Beyond being irresponsible, the seemingly coordinated nature of these claims should alarm us all – particularly since, in recent days, these baseless accusations have been repeated by several members of the House of Representatives. 

I believe it is up to every member of this institution, Republican or Democrat, to make a clear and unambiguous statement: that any attempt by this President to remove Special Counsel Mueller from his position, or to pardon key witnesses in an effort to shield them from accountability or shut down the investigation, would be a gross abuse of power and a flagrant violation of Executive branch responsibilities and authorities. These are red lines, and we simply cannot allow them to be crossed.

Let’s remember why Special Counsel Mueller was appointed in the first place – and why it remains so critical that he be permitted to finish his job, without obstruction.

Recall, last spring, we were all reeling from a series of confounding actions by this President, beginning with the firing of FBI Director Jim Comey on May 9, 2017.  Mr. Comey was fired just two months after publicly revealing the FBI’s ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign, and – as we would find out later – after several attempts by this President to improperly influence Director Comey. 

Try to put yourself back into those dangerous days.  Director Comey’s dismissal was met with confusion and widespread condemnation.  We needed a stabilizing action from our nation’s law enforcement leadership. We needed some certainty that the facts would be found and brought to light – regardless of what they were. 

Eight days after Mr. Comey’s firing, Trump appointee and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to oversee the investigation into “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

His appointment reassured Americans that there would be a full and thorough law enforcement investigation. The announcement was met with support on both sides of the aisle and received nearly universal praise. In fact, many of the same people who are attacking him today praised Mr. Mueller’s appointment just months ago.

Indeed, there is much to praise. The fact is that Robert Mueller has impeccable credentials as a man of the law.  He has assembled a team that includes some of the nation’s best investigators, and he is leading this investigation with the professionalism that it deserves.   

Mr. Mueller is a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a lifelong Republican, appointed to his current role by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, also a Republican.  In fact, all of the major players to date in this investigation – former Director Comey, current FBI Director Wray, Rosenstein, and even Attorney General Sessions, who has recused himself – are all Republicans.  The charges of Democratic political bias are baseless, given the makeup of the leadership team.    

In recent weeks, much has been made of some political opinions expressed by an FBI agent during the election last year. This specious line of argument conveniently ignores the fact that, as soon as Mr. Mueller learned about those comments, he immediately removed the agent in question from the investigation.  If anything, this incident only adds to Mr. Mueller’s credibility as a fair and independent investigator.

Mr. President, I stand here as the Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. We are in the midst of our own investigation into the Russian incursion, and I’m proud of the way Chairman Burr and our Committee members have taken on this difficult task.  We’ve made tremendous progress in uncovering the facts of Russian interference in our elections.  Our Committee’s work helped expose a dark underbelly of disinformation on our social media platforms.  We have successfully pressed for the full accounting of Russian cyber efforts to target our state election systems.  And, despite the initial denials of any Russian contacts during the election, this Committee’s efforts have helped uncover numerous and troubling high-level engagements between the Trump campaign and Russian affiliates – many of which have only been revealed in recent months.       

We’ve got some work to do yet.  But, this Committee has gone out of its way to ensure continued bipartisan backing for this effort, and I’m committed to seeing this through.

However, it should be very clear that our Committee cannot and will not stand as a substitute for Mr. Mueller’s investigation.  As Chairman Burr and I have noted on numerous occasions, the FBI is responsible for determining any criminal activities related to this inquiry. As such, Mueller has already moved to indict two individuals and has negotiated two additional guilty pleas. This is an investigative path reserved solely for law enforcement, and it is essential that it be permitted to go on unimpeded. 

The country no doubt remains severely divided on the question of the last election; however, the national security threat facing us today should demand that we rise above the partisan differences. No matter the political divide, surely each of us – and all Americans – should want to know the truth of what happened during last year’s election. And, no doubt, we all want to know as quickly as possible.

The President has long called the investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 election a witch hunt, and he has done much to discredit the Intelligence Community’s unanimous assessment of Russian interference in our election. The failure of this White House to lead a whole-of-government approach to prevent this type of election interference in the future – either by Russia or some other adversary – defies understanding.  The President’s refusal to accept the Intelligence Community’s assessment and his blatant disregard for ensuring Russia never again infiltrates our election process has been unnerving and cause for significant concern.

In recent days, the President has said he is not considering removing Special Counsel Mueller.  But the President’s track record on this front is a source of concern.  I’m certain many of my colleagues believed that he wouldn’t possibly fire Mr. Comey, either.   

Firing Mr. Mueller or any of the top brass involved in this investigation would not only call into question this Administration’s commitment to the truth and the rule of law. It also has the potential to provoke a constitutional crisis. In the United States of America, no one is above the law. Not even the President. Congress must make clear to the President that firing the Special Counsel, or interfering with his investigation by issuing pardons of essential witnesses, is unacceptable, and would have immediate and significant consequences. 

I hope my concerns are unfounded, but there are troubling signs.  It is critical that we as elected officials, and as citizens, speak up against these threats now…before it is too late.  

Thank you, Mr. President.  

 

###

As Prepared for Delivery

In this age of social media, you can’t afford to waste too much time – or too many characters – in getting the point across, so I’ll get straight to the bottom line. 

Russian operatives are attempting to infiltrate and manipulate social media to hijack the national conversation and to make Americans angry, to set us against ourselves, and to undermine our democracy.  They did it during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. They are still doing it now.  And not one of us is doing enough to stop it.  

That is why we are here today.

In many ways, this threat is not new. Russians have been conducting information warfare for decades.

But what is new is the advent of social media tools with the power to magnify propaganda and fake news on a scale that was unimaginable back in the days of the Berlin Wall.  Today’s tools seem almost purpose-built for Russian disinformation techniques. 

Russia’s playbook is simple, but formidable.  It works like this:

  1. Disinformation agents set up thousands of fake accounts, groups and pages across a wide array of platforms. 
  2. These fake accounts populate content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, LinkedIn, and others.
  3. Each of these fake accounts spend months developing networks of real people to follow and like their content, boosted by tools like paid ads and automated bots. Most of their real-life followers have no idea they are caught up in this web.     
  4. These networks are later utilized to push an array of disinformation, including stolen emails, state-led propaganda (like RT and Sputnik), fake news, and divisive content.

The goal here is to get this content into the news feeds of as many potentially receptive Americans as possible and to covertly and subtly push them in the direction the Kremlin wants them to go.

As one who deeply respects the tech industry and was involved in the tech business for twenty years, it has taken me some time to really understand this threat.  Even I struggle to keep up with the language and mechanics.  The difference between bots, trolls, and fake accounts.  How they generate Likes, Tweets, and Shares.  And how all of these players and actions are combined into an online ecosystem. 

What is clear, however, is that this playbook offers a tremendous bang for the disinformation buck. 

With just a small amount of money, adversaries use hackers to steal and weaponize data, trolls to craft disinformation, fake accounts to build networks, bots to drive traffic, and ads to target new audiences.  They can force propaganda into the mainstream and wreak havoc on our online discourse.  That’s a big return on investment.   

So where do we go from here? 

It will take all of us – the platform companies, the United States government, and the American people – to deal with this new and evolving threat.

The social media and innovative tools each of you have developed have changed our world for the better. 

You have transformed the way we do everything from shopping for groceries to growing our small businesses.  But Russia’s actions are further exposing the dark underbelly of the ecosystem you have created.  And there is no doubt that their successful campaign will be replicated by other adversaries – both nation states and terrorists – that wish to do harm to democracies around the globe.

As such, each of you here today needs to commit more resources to identifying bad actors and, when possible, preventing them from abusing our social media ecosystem.  

Thanks in part to pressure from this Committee, each company has uncovered some evidence of the ways Russians exploited their platforms during the 2016 election.

For Facebook, much of the attention has been focused on the paid ads Russian trolls targeted to Americans.  However, these ads are just the tip of a very large iceberg.  The real story is the amount of misinformation and divisive content that was pushed for free on Russian-backed pages, which then spread widely on the News Feeds of tens of millions of Americans. 

According to data Facebook has provided, 120 Russian-backed Pages built a network of over [3.3] million real people. 

From these now-suspended Pages, 80,000 organic unpaid posts reached an estimated 126 million real people.  That is an astonishing reach from just one group in St. Petersburg.  And I doubt that the so-called Internet Research Agency represents the only Russian trolls out there.  Facebook has more work to do to see how deep this goes, including looking into the reach of the IRA-backed Instagram posts, which represent another 120,000 pieces of content – more Russian content on Instagram than even Facebook.

The anonymity provided by Twitter and the speed by which it shares news makes it an ideal tool to spread disinformation.

According to one study, during the 2016 campaign, junk news actually outperformed real news in some battleground states in the lead-up to Election Day.[1]  Another study found that bots generated one out of every five political messages posted on Twitter over the entire presidential campaign.[2]   

I’m concerned that Twitter seems to be vastly under-estimating the number of fake accounts and bots pushing disinformation.  Independent researchers have estimated that up to 15% of Twitter accounts – or potentially 48 million accounts – are fake or automated.[3] 

Despite evidence of significant incursion and outreach from researchers, Twitter has, to date, only uncovered a small percentage of that activity.  Though, I am pleased to see, Twitter, that your number has been rising in recent weeks.   

Google’s search algorithms continue to have problems in surfacing fake news or propaganda.  Though we can’t necessarily attribute to the Russian effort, false stories and unsubstantiated rumors were elevated on Google Search during the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas.  Meanwhile, YouTube has become RT’s go-to platform.  Google has now uncovered 1100 videos associated with this campaign.  Much more of your content was likely spread through other platforms.        

It is not just the platforms that need to do more.  The U.S. government has thus far proven incapable of adapting to meet this 21st century challenge.  Unfortunately, I believe this effort is suffering, in part, because of a lack of leadership at the top.  We have a President who remains unwilling to acknowledge the threat that Russia poses to our democracy.  President Trump should stop actively delegitimizing American journalism and acknowledge this real threat posed by Russian propaganda.

Congress, too, must do more.  We need to recognize that current law was not built to address these threats. I have partnered with Senators Klobuchar and McCain on a light-touch, legislative approach, which I hope my colleagues will review. 

The Honest Ads Act is a national security bill intended to protect our elections from foreign influence. 

Finally – but perhaps most importantly – the American people also need to be aware of what is happening on our news feeds. We all need to take a more discerning approach to what we are reading and sharing, and who we are connecting with online. We need to recognize that the person at the other end of that Facebook or Twitter argument may not be a real person at all.

The fact is that this Russian weapon has already proven its success and cost effectiveness. 

We can be assured that other adversaries, including foreign intelligence operatives and potentially terrorist organizations, are reading their playbook and already taking action.  We must act.      

To our witnesses today, I hope you will detail what you saw in this last election and tell us what steps you will undertake to get ready for the next one.  We welcome your participation and encourage your commitment to addressing this shared responsibility.



[1] Oxford Internet Institute (Phil Howard): “Social Media, News and Political Information During the U.S. Election:  Was Polarizing Content Concentrated in Swing States?” (September 28, 2017);

[2] USC: “Social Bots Distort the 2016 U.S. Presidential election Online Discussion,” (November 2016)

[3] University of Southern California and Indiana University: “Online Human-bot Interactions: Detection, Estimation, and Characterization” (March 2017). 

by the Editorial Board

As Americans have learned since the last election, Internet ads can race halfway around the world before truth-squadders are even aware of their existence, much less who paid for them. But we now know that in the 2016 campaign cycle, at least 3,000 digital ads that ran on Facebook were linked to Russia, and more than 450 Facebook profiles were tied to Russian operatives, who spent an estimated $100,000 on those ads. And that Russians also spent considerable sums for advertising on Gmail and YouTube.

That’s valuable information to have, but it is scant comfort to learn it long months after the votes were counted. This country must do better to safeguard future elections.

The Federal Election Commission, never good at acting until it has to, in part because it often finds itself in partisan gridlock, has been caught flatfooted by the outside deluge of online ads. So, too, were the social media companies themselves. Embarrassed by post-election revelations, they are now promising to do more on their own to scrutinize ads, perhaps as a way to forestall new laws or regulations. Expect them to underline their planned ad-policing efforts when executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter testify before House and Senate intelligence committees on Wednesday. But given their past asleep-at-the-switch performances and the too-little, too-late nature of those initiatves, leaving ad oversight to them is hardly a promising course.

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Now Senators Amy Klobuchar, Mark Warner, and John McCain have stepped up with a bill that would apply the laws that govern broadcast political advertisements to the Internet ad sector.

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Specifically, paid Internet ads related to campaigns or elections would have to have clear and conspicuous disclaimers saying what entity was paying for them, the same way TV, radio, and print ads do. Further, those ads would have to include easy access to the name and street address, telephone number, or web address of the ad purchaser.

Facebook Will Disclose More on Political Ads, Similar to TV (1)
Facebook Inc. said it will start disclosing more about political ads, bringing the social network’s rules closer to what’s required of traditional mediums like television.
Amazon, Facebook and Google beef up lobbying spending

Additionally, any website with 50 million or more monthly users would be required to provide the FEC with digital copies of the ads from any entity that spends more than $500 on them and to detail the amount of spending, the audience targeted, the period during which they ran, the rates charged, the number of views generated, and the contact information of the purchaser. Those social media companies would also be required to make reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign entities weren’t buying ads on their platforms in an attempt to influence US elections.

“This would be a real step forward in providing transparency,” says Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at Common Cause. “It is not a panacea, but it is a critical step toward updating the law.”

The hope is that the proposed law would have two effects. First, by mandating more transparency, it should make foreign agents more cautious about attempting to interfere in US elections via digital ads. Second, by requiring greater information, it should give media outlets and other interested parties a way to discern who is behind those ads.

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As the favored candidate of Russia and a man who can barely force himself to acknowledge the Russian election-interference efforts, President Trump can’t be counted on to play any kind of leading role in passing this legislation. That will be left to Congress.

The danger is that this will come to be seen as a partisan issue. It isn’t and shouldn’t be. In the 2016 election cycle, we saw a serious attack on American democracy. Efforts to prevent a second such occurrence need to be pursued with bipartisan determination.

It’s now clear to everyone — with the possible exception of Donald Trump — that operatives linked to Russia took advantage of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to stoke divisions among Americans during last year’s presidential campaign. This meddling ought to outrage Americans regardless of their party affiliation.

Now, legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress that would attempt to make it at least somewhat harder for Russians and other foreign actors to use social media to manipulate public opinion in this country and influence elections. Equally important, it would shine more light on the sources of online advertising in election campaigns.

The Honest Ads Act sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) would mandate that election-related online advertising be subject to the same disclosure and disclaimer requirements as similar ads in other media. It also would require online platforms, as well as broadcasters and cable and satellite TV companies, to make reasonable efforts to ensure that the political advertisements they disseminate comply with the existing ban on foreigners spending money to influence U.S. elections.

Election law has been painfully slow to catch up with the growing importance of online political advertising. According to Borrell Associates, a data tracking firm, political spending on digital advertising in the 2016 election cycle amounted to $1.4 billion, nearly an 800% increase from the previous presidential election. (“Digital advertising” includes search, display, email, video, social media and mobile marketing efforts.) The figure is projected to rise to $1.9 billion in the 2018 election cycle and $2.8 billion in 2020.

Unlike radio and television stations, internet platforms aren’t “public” entities operated under a government license.
Online services have resisted the idea that paid political messages on their platforms should be subject to requirements that they identify those financing the ads; some have compared online political ads to trivial examples of political communication, such as campaign buttons or bumper stickers.

Those are clearly obsolete analogies. And while there may not be room for a disclaimer on a campaign button, software engineers should find it easy to satisfy the bill’s requirement that an ad state in a “clear and conspicuous manner” who paid for it. (Running the computer mouse over the ad, for example, could pull up the disclosure statement.)

Granted, there’s always the risk that foreign governments and operatives will try to conceal their involvement by funneling money through innocuous-sounding groups based in the United States. The bill wouldn’t make matters any better or worse on that front.

A more fundamental challenge for the bill’s authors is that much of the meddling done in last year’s campaign wasn’t in advertisements — it was in news (and fake news) stories circulated, tweeted and retweeted online. Many of the posts attributed to Russia focused on divisive social issues such as race, gun control, immigration and gay rights. Such communications would largely be ignored by the Klobuchar bill.

What the measure would do is require internet companies to maintain records not just of election-related advertisements but also of ads related to “a national legislative issue of public importance.”

There are two problems with this provision, however. First, it’s a disproportionate response to the possibility that Russians or other foreigners may be violating U.S. election law. While foreigners are prohibited from spending money on election-related advertising, the Federal Election Commission and the courts have said they are allowed to subsidize “issue ads.”

A more serious issue is that, unlike radio and television stations, internet platforms aren’t “public” entities operated under a government license. There may be 1st Amendment problems with subjecting them to the same record-keeping requirements that are imposed on radio and TV stations.

The fact that Congress has limited power to regulate online forums for political speech doesn’t mean that social media companies can’t act on their own to be more vigilant about manipulation of their platforms by foreign actors, whether it take the form of deceptive advertising or “fake news.” After Facebook revealed that a Russian company with ties to the Kremlin had purchased more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on its site, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg pledged to “do our part to defend against nation states attempting to spread misinformation and subvert elections.” On Friday, Facebook announced that it would require disclosure by buyers of political ads and adopt other transparency measures.

That sort of self-policing is clearly part of the solution. But so is measured legislation that requires transparency in election advertising regardless of where it appears.