Senate urges action in face of Russian ‘information warfare’
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan panel of U.S. senators Tuesday called for sweeping action by Congress, the White House and Silicon Valley to ensure social media sites aren’t used to interfere in the coming presidential election, delivering a sobering assessment about the weaknesses that Russian operatives exploited in the 2016 campaign.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, a Republican-led panel that has been investigating foreign electoral interference for more than two and a half years, said in blunt language that Russians worked to damage Democrat Hillary Clinton while bolstering Republican Donald Trump — and made clear that fresh rounds of interference are likely ahead of the 2020 vote.
“Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the committee’s chairman. “Their goal is broader: to sow societal discord and erode public confidence in the machinery of government. By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories, and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans.”
In response, Democratic and Republican lawmakers urged their peers in Congress to act, exploring the adoption of new regulations that would make political ads more transparent. They also called on the White House and the executive branch to adopt a more forceful public role, warning Americans about the ways in which dangerous misinformation can spread while creating new teams within the U.S. government to monitor for threats and share intelligence with industry.
The recommendations for Silicon Valley call for more extensive sharing of intelligence among companies, in recognition of the shortage of such sharing in 2016 and also the ways that disinformation from Russia and other countries spreads across numerous platforms — with posts linking back and forth in a tangle of connections.
“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,” the report says. The Russian effort was “a vastly more complex and strategic assault on the United States than was initially understood ... an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on the citizens and democratic institutions of the United States.”
The committee report recounts extensive Russian manipulation of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Google and other major platforms with the goal of dividing Americans, suppressing African American turnout and helping elect Trump president. But Tuesday’s report, the second volume of the committee’s final report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, offered the most detailed set of recommendations so far in attempting to bolster the nation’s defenses against foreign meddling online — now a routine tactic for many nations.
While the report tracked closely with the previous findings of special counsel Robert Mueller and several independent researchers, the comprehensiveness and forcefulness of the report’s conclusions are striking in light of Trump’s efforts to minimize the impact of Russian interference in the election that brought him to office.
The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Lawmakers delivered their recommendations just days after new revelations of possible election interference jolted Washington. On Friday, Microsoft announced it had discovered Iranian-linked hackers had targeted the personal email accounts associated with a number of current and former government officials, journalists writing on global affairs and at least one presidential candidate’s campaign.
Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr, right, said Russia is “waging an information warfare campaign.”