Rus­sia med­dlers showed mea­ger knowl­edge of U.S. elec­tion sys­tem

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY DAN BOY­LAN

It was ex­ten­sive and am­bi­tious, but it wasn’t par­tic­u­larly so­phis­ti­cated.

The shad­owy Krem­lin pro­pa­ganda op­er­a­tion to med­dle in the U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion last year ran four times as many Face­book ads in the deep-blue state of Mary­land than it did in more-crit­i­cal swing states such as Wis­con­sin, the head of the Se­nate Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence re­vealed Wed­nes­day.

Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Repub­li­can, said the 55 ads in Wis­con­sin — cost­ing less than $2,000 to­tal — were vir­tu­ally all run be­fore the state’s pri­mary, and none men­tioned can­di­date Don­ald Trump by name, sug­gest­ing they were less about boost­ing the can­di­date and more about sow­ing general chaos.

The find­ings pro­vided lit­tle sup­port for Demo­cratic com­plaints that a widerang­ing, sur­rep­ti­tious Rus­sia so­cial me­dia as­sault helped sway the elec­tion to Mr. Trump over Demo­cratic ri­val Hil­lary Clin­ton.

Still, of­fi­cials from Sil­i­con Val­ley’s top tech and so­cial me­dia firms faced a sec­ond straight day Wed­nes­day of with­er­ing crit­i­cism on Capi­tol Hill, as Face­book, Twit­ter and Google ex­ec­u­tives tried to ex­plain their in­abil­ity to stop Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda from ex­ploit­ing their so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

The nor­mally hy­per­com­pet­i­tive tech giants have shown Washington a uni­fied front while de­fend­ing the his­toric breach as a way to cool law­mak­ers’ de­sire for tougher over­sight of their in­dus­try.

In a highly an­tic­i­pated move, the House Per­ma­nent Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence — in ad­di­tion to blast­ing the firms for non­trans­parency and stonewalling — re­leased dozens of ex­am­ples of the Rus­sian-bought Face­book ads and ac­count names de­signed to whip up ten­sions around di­vi­sive so­cial is­sues.

Com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­ga­tors dis­played the ads — en­larged on poster boards — around the com­mit­tee hear­ing room. Bunched to­gether, they con­veyed a vis­ceral nas­ti­ness and anger.

One Face­book ad touted an event to “Sup­port Hil­lary. Save Amer­i­can Mus­lims!” with a pic­ture of a woman in a hi­jab be­side Hil­lary Clin­ton. Another, for a group called “Stop A.I.,” urged view­ers to “like and share if you want burqa banned in Amer­ica” be­cause the full-body cov­er­ing could be hid­ing a ter­ror­ist.

Sev­eral used bro­ken English and had punc­tu­a­tion mis­takes, like a color­ing book for Bernard San­ders sup­ported by a group call­ing it­self “LGBT United,” which read: “stop tak­ing this whole thing too se­ri­ous. The color­ing is some­thing that suits for all peo­ple.”

In prepa­ra­tion for this week’s con­gres­sional hear­ings, Face­book dis­closed that con­tent gen­er­ated by a Rus­sian group, the In­ter­net Re­search Agency, reached as many as 126 mil­lion users. Face­book ear­lier turned over more than 3,000 ad­ver­tise­ments linked to that group.

U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have said the Rus­sian govern­ment ex­ploited so­cial me­dia as part of a sprawl­ing and sur­rep­ti­tious cam­paign to in­flu­ence the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in fa­vor of Mr. Trump.

Dur­ing Wed­nes­day’s Se­nate hear­ing, Mr. Burr said the nar­ra­tive that Rus­sian­backed op­er­a­tives worked to boost Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clin­ton was false.

“I un­der­stand the urge to make this story sim­ple,” he said. “But that’s bi­ased.”

Sen. Marco Ru­bio, Florida Repub­li­can, warned that Rus­sian mis­in­for­ma­tion would con­tinue. “Th­ese op­er­a­tions, they’re not limited to 2016 and not limited to the pres­i­den­tial race, and they con­tinue to this day,” he said.

Sen. Mark R. Warner of Vir­ginia, the com­mit­tee’s rank­ing Demo­crat, aimed his open­ing state­ment di­rectly at the Krem­lin.

“Rus­sian op­er­a­tives are at­tempt­ing to in­fil­trate and ma­nip­u­late Amer­i­can so­cial me­dia to hi­jack the na­tional con­ver­sa­tion and to make Amer­i­cans an­gry, to set us against our­selves and to un­der­mine our democ­racy,” he said. “They are still do­ing it now, and not one of us is do­ing enough to stop it.”

He then lashed out at Face­book for a con­tin­ued lack of re­spon­sive­ness to the com­mit­tee’s ef­forts to ob­tain data from the so­cial me­dia be­he­moth.

“I have more than a lit­tle bit of frus­tra­tion that many of us on this com­mit­tee have been rais­ing this is­sue since the begin­ning of this year, and our claims were frankly blown off by the lead­er­ship of your com­pa­nies,” Mr. Warner said.

Colin Stretch, Face­book’s general coun­sel, at­tempted to push back. “We’ve pro­vided all the in­for­ma­tion we can about the con­tent that we’ve iden­ti­fied on the sys­tem,” he said.

On Tues­day, ex­ec­u­tives from the firms were crit­i­cized by a Se­nate ju­di­ciary sub­com­mit­tee ex­plor­ing Rus­sian elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence. The firms didn’t seem to con­vince law­mak­ers that a sim­i­lar pro­pa­ganda push by the Krem­lin could be stopped be­fore the next general elec­tion.

Dur­ing the House hear­ing, lead Demo­crat Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Cal­i­for­nia framed the prob­lem in terms of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s busi­ness model, which re­quires vi­ral con­tent.

“Part of what made the Rus­sia so­cial me­dia cam­paign suc­cess­ful is that they un­der­stood al­go­rithms you use that tend to ac­cen­tu­ate con­tent that is ei­ther fear-based or anger-based,” Mr. Schiff said.

Mr. Warner ex­plained that the Krem­lin’s pro­pa­gan­dists had a deep un­der­stand­ing of so­cial me­dia.

“For Face­book, much of the at­ten­tion has been fo­cused on the paid ads Rus­sian trolls tar­geted to Amer­i­cans,” he said. “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.”

To high­light his point, he showed a blow-up of a post that cir­cu­lated widely on Face­book fea­tur­ing an il­lus­tra­tion of a shirt­less Je­sus and a devil-horned Mrs. Clin­ton star­ing down each other in the man­ner box­ers do be­fore they fight.

This ar­ti­cle is based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee lead­ers Richard Burr (right) of North Carolina and Mark R. Warner of Vir­ginia led the ques­tion­ing of tech giants Face­book, Twit­ter and Google on Wed­nes­day on Capi­tol Hill.

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