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Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, questioned experts at a hearing on Russia’s previous and ongoing efforts to meddle in U.S. elections through the use of social media.
During the 2016 election, an estimated 150 million Americans were exposed to inauthentic and deceiving content created by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) and disseminated via various U.S.-based social media platforms. Moreover, 29 million people were served content in their News Feeds directly from the IRA’s 80,000 posts on Facebook Pages it created. According to the Intelligence Community’s 2017 assessment, Moscow’s influence campaign blended covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.”
Senator Collins asked Dr. John Kelly, the Founder and CEO of Graphika, “What are Russia’s ultimate goals? Is it to undermine the public’s faith in western democracies and so weaken the bonds that unite us?”
“I believe that’s exactly correct,” replied Dr. Kelly. “I think they have long-term strategic goals, which include weakening western institutions and faith in democracy and traditional sources of information and authority. Then they have a lot of near short-term tactical goals, things like injecting hacked information to sway a particular event or election, and they’re doing that activity all around their periphery and now [in the United States].”
Senator Collins stated that despite our government imposing sanctions on Russia, their efforts to manipulate our elections have continued to present day.
“What can we do beyond educating the public to counter Russia more effectively?” asked Senator Collins.
“I think there’s a technical component which is to be able to effectively detect and attribute this activity so you can authoritatively prove its happening and then you have a more traditional toolkit of foreign policy measures to take action,” answered Dr. Kelly.
Senator Collins noted Russia’s efforts to manipulate and control foreign media platforms, such as the fake Pro-Trump persona “Jenna Abrams” on Twitter that was created by Russians and cited by more than 40 U.S. journalists before being unmasked.
“How can the media be more sensitive, more aware, or more on guard to being manipulated in this way?” asked Senator Collins.
“[T]his is not a problem that we’ve overcome,” said Laura Rosenbereger, Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States. “We have one example, for instance, of an IRA-created Twitter account handle, Woke Louisa, that was tweeting in particular to African Americans focused on the NFL take a knee debate… [and] appeared in more than two dozen news stories from outlets, such as BBC, USA Today, Time Wire, the Huffington post, and BET. This was about four months ago, so we really do need to make sure that this information is not getting laundered into the broader ecosystem which is part of the strategy here.”
Last week, Senator Collins cosponsored the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act, bipartisan legislation to dissuade hostile foreign powers from meddling in our elections through the use of sanctions and other national security tools.
Witnesses for today’s hearing included:
- Dr. Todd Helmus, Senior Behavioral Scientist, RAND Corporation
- Ms. Renee DiResta, Director of Research, New Knowledge
- Dr. John Kelly, Found and CEO, Graphika
- Ms. Laura Rosenberger, Director, Alliance for Securing Democracy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States
- Dr. Philip Howard, Director, Oxford Internet Institute