WASHINGTON — A bipartisan panel of U.S. senators — including the two from Maine — on Tuesday called for sweeping action by government and Silicon Valley to ensure social-media sites aren’t used to interfere in the coming presidential election, delivering a sobering assessment about weaknesses exploited by Russian operatives in 2016.
The Senate Intelligence Committee, which 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.
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 Federal government, civil society, and the private sector, including social media and technology companies, each have an important role to play in deterring and defending against foreign influence operations that target the United States,” committee lawmakers said.
The committee has in previous reports and hearings detailed extensive Russian manipulation of Facebook and other major platforms with the goal of dividing Americans, suppressing African American turnout and helping elect Trump.
But Tuesday’s report, the second volume of the committee’s final report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, offered the most detailed and robust set of recommendations so far in attempting to bolster the nation’s defenses against foreign meddling online — now a routine tactic for many nations.
Trump has questioned the findings by U.S. intelligence officials that the 2016 election was a target of Russian manipulation, sometimes embracing conservative conspiracy theories even as federal investigators have detailed efforts to interfere through fake social media accounts, leaks of stolen Democratic Party documents and hacks into state voting systems.
Maine’s U.S. senators are both on the intelligence panel. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, said in a statement that the report “demonstrates how imperative it is that Congress take strong action to deter foreign nations” from interfering in elections.
Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, issued a statement saying senators “must pass stronger election security legislation” and Trump “must stop using his office … to invite further foreign involvement in American elections.”
“He’s led people to believe that it didn’t happen and that it isn’t happening,” King said of Trump in an interview with the Bangor Daily News. “In other words, he’s disarming people by not warning them that this happened and will happen.”
The panel’s report backed the views of other federal officials of the sweep and goals of the Russian effort saying that the operation “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 White House, say numerous researchers and outside critics, has failed to lead the kind of aggressive, government-wide effort they argue would protect the 2020 race, though some federal agencies took steps to address foreign threats more forcefully during the 2018 congressional election.
That included a cyber-operation that disrupted Russia’s Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, on election day. Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted the agency and 13 affiliated Russians for their alleged role in 2016 election interference, which played a central role as well in Mueller’s landmark final report, released in April.
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.
The Iranian effort highlighted the lingering aftermath of Russia’s online efforts three years ago, as other countries around the now seek to adopt the Kremlin’s playbook, turning disinformation and other forms of election meddling into a global phenomenon.
Among other countries known to have conducted such operations are Saudi Arabia, Israel, China, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Venezuela, say researchers. An Oxford University report said last month that at least 70 nations have sought to manipulate voters and others online, though most deal mainly in their own politics.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.