WASHINGTON, DC – In an effort to bolster U.S. defenses against foreign election interference and online disinformation campaigns, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence today issued a new report titled, “Russia’s Use of Social Media.” The bipartisan report examines Russia’s efforts to use social media to sow societal discord and influence the outcome of the 2016 election, led by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA).
U.S. Senator Jack Reed, an ex officio member of the Senate Intelligence Committee who took part in the panel’s multi-year investigation into the issue and participated in several key hearings that helped shape the report, says the bipartisan report makes clear that vulnerabilities remain and that a whole of government and whole of society approach -- including in conjunction with social media companies -- is necessary to deter and counter Russia and other foreign adversaries from exploiting the American people and interfering with our democracy. Reed says new legislation is needed to make political advertising more transparent and urges the establishment of a Malign Foreign Influence Response Center to combat election interference operations conducted by foreign adversaries against the United States.
Senator Reed says social media companies should be required to publicly disclose the identities of those who purchase political ads, similar to laws that currently require television stations to do the same thing. He has also introduced legislation to create a Malign Foreign Influence Response Center to coordinate intelligence and analysis sharing across government agencies involved in countering election interference operations conducted by foreign adversaries against the United States.
This report is the second volume released in the Committee’s bipartisan investigation into Russia’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election. It states: “The Committee found that Russia's targeting of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was part of a broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society. Moreover, the IRA conducted a vastly more complex and strategic assault on the United States than was initially understood. The IRA’s actions in 2016 represent only the latest installment in an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on the citizens and democratic institutions of the United States.”
“Despite Donald Trump’s efforts to downplay foreign interference in our elections, this bipartisan report makes clear the need for swift, strategic action by both the federal government and social media companies to counter this increasingly sophisticated and evolving threat,” said Senator Reed. “I commend Chairman Burr and Vice Chairman Warner for their bipartisan leadership in methodically putting together this report, which should be a roadmap for action to help defend our democracy. America’s adversaries will continue to use social media as a tool to try to interfere in our democracy and we’ve got to get ahead of the curve and ensure the American people are informed and there is a transparent process in place to prevent these kinds of shadowy attacks.”
Under the bipartisan leadership of Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA), the Intelligence Committee has held five open hearings on Russia’s use of social media. The Committee released the first volume of its Russia investigation in July 2019: “Volume I: Russian Efforts Against Election Infrastructure.”
Key Findings and Recommendations of “Russia’s Use of Social Media”:
The Committee found that Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin. The Committee found that IRA social media activity was overtly and almost invariably supportive of then-candidate Trump to the detriment of Secretary Clinton’s campaign.
The Internet Research Agency’s targeting of the 2016 U.S. election was part of a broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society. While the IRA exploited election-related content, the majority of its operations focused on exacerbating existing tensions on socially divisive issues, including race, immigration, and Second Amendment rights.
The Committee found the IRA targeted African-Americans more than any other group or demographic. Through individual posts, location targeting, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and Twitter trends, the IRA focused much of its efforts on stoking divisions around hot-button issues with racial undertones.
The IRA engaged with unwitting Americans to further its reach beyond the digital realm and into real-world activities. For example, IRA operatives targeting African-Americans convinced individuals to sign petitions, share personal information, and teach self-defense courses. Posing as U.S. political activists, operatives sought help from the Trump Campaign to procure campaign materials and to organize and promote rallies.
The Committee found IRA activity increased, rather than decreased, after Election Day 2016. Analysis of IRA-associated accounts shows a significant spike in activity after the election, increasing across Instagram (238 percent), Facebook (59 percent), Twitter (52 percent), and YouTube (84 percent). Researchers continue to uncover IRA-associated accounts that spread malicious content.
The Committee recommends social media companies work to facilitate greater information sharing between the public and private sector. Because information warfare campaigns are waged across a variety of platforms, communication between individual companies, government authorities, and law enforcement is essential for fully assessing and responding to them. Additionally, social media companies do not consistently provide a notification or guidance to users who have been exposed to inauthentic accounts.
The Committee recommends Congress consider ways to facilitate productive coordination and cooperation between social media companies and relevant government agencies. Congress should consider whether any existing laws may hinder cooperation and whether information sharing should be formalized. The Committee also recommends Congress consider legislation to ensure Americans know the source behind online political advertisements, similar to existing requirements for television, radio, and satellite ads.
The Committee recommends the Executive Branch publicly reinforce the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election. The Executive Branch should establish an interagency task force to monitor foreign nations’ use of social media platforms for democratic interference and develop a deterrence framework. A public initiative to increase media literacy and a public service announcement (PSA) campaign could also help inform voters.
The Committee recommends candidates, campaigns, and other public figures scrutinize sourcing before sharing or promoting new content within their social media network. All Americans should approach social media responsibly to prevent giving “greater reach to those who seek to do our country harm.” The Committee recommends that media organizations establish clear guidelines for using social media accounts as sources to prevent the spread of state-sponsored disinformation.