No clear solutions to combat foreign election meddling
- By Derek B. Johnson
- Oct 08, 2019
The United States Senate released the second volume of its report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, this time focusing on online influence campaigns carried out by the Internet Research Agency and Russian intelligence agencies.
Much of the committee's findings detailed in the 85-page report mirror earlier media reports, criminal indictments and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's own report. It accuses Russia of carrying out a multi-pronged deception campaign on social media in the years leading up to 2016 that was "aimed at influencing how this nation's citizens think about themselves, their government, and their fellow Americans."
According to the report, the Russians' tactics were speed and volume, injecting disinformation into the public sphere faster than affected groups could clear the record and putting out so much that responders were "overwhelmed" and unable to effectively respond.
One area the committee appeared to downplay was the impact from paid advertisements on social media platforms. The purchase of online ads by Russian cutouts in 2016 prompted lawmakers – including Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.)—to push the Honest Ads Act, which would require more transparency around such purchases. Shortly after the report was made public, congressional Democrats re-introduced the bill as part of a legislative package that would also establish a new reporting system for U.S. political campaigns to flag contacts from foreign governments and codify rules on accepting gifts from foreign nationals related to U.S. elections.
The committee's report endorses more transparency around online advertising, but its own investigation found that such ad buys were so minor they paled in comparison to the free exposure operators were able to get from simply using the platforms themselves to spread content.
"Paid advertisements were not key to the IRA's activity, and moreover, are not alone an accurate measure of the IRA's operational scope, scale, or objectives, despite this aspect of social-media being a focus of early press reporting and public awareness," the committee wrote.
Even after multiple investigations, the report noted that the full scope of Russian activity on social media remains unknown.
The committee's findings highlight how little has been accomplished over the past three years on the legislative or regulatory front to tackle the problem. Despite a pool of bills introduced over the past three years, the committee did not endorse or recommend specific legislation for passage, opting instead to promote more-general information-sharing practices between the federal government and the private sector.
The report is mostly silent when it comes to promoting legislative solutions.
For example: the committee found nearly half of the IRA's online activities were spread through bot networks. A bill to ban the use of botnets introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) last year seemed to garner bipartisan momentum, but never made it out of committee. The bill had the support of the Department of Justice, with one official saying it would be "very helpful" to election security efforts.
In September, a spokesperson for Whitehouse indicated to FCW that there are no immediate plans to make a renewed push on the legislation this year.
In the final section of the report—apart from the main findings and recommendations of the full committee—Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) flagged the data-hoarding practices of social media platforms as an ongoing threat, noting the Russians apparently did not take advantage of tools provided to advertisers by Facebook in 2016 that would have allowed for more-granular microtargeting of different groups. Wyden endorsed legislation to give the Federal Trade Commission the power to set baseline data security and privacy rules for companies that store or share Americans' data, force companies to disclose more about how they collect and share user data and ensure users can opt out of such collection.
Dueling statements by committee leaders hint at a potential partisan split on congressional action. While Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said he hoped the committee's findings "encourage more Americans to use social media responsibly," his counterpart Warner said Congress "must step up and establish guardrails to protect the integrity of our democracy."
"At minimum, we need to demand transparency around social media to prevent our adversaries for hiding in the shadows," said Warner. "We also need to give Americans more control over their data and how it's used, and make sure that they know who's really bankrolling the political ads coming across their screens…[and] take measures to guarantee companies are identifying inauthentic user accounts and pages and appropriately handling defamatory or synthetic content."
Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.
Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.
Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.
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