November 18, 2019
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With attempts to influence our elections, Americans must be skeptical consumers of online content

Jon Elswick | AP
Jon Elswick | AP
Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues, released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence committee, are photographed in Washington, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017.

A second report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, released earlier this month, further details the extent of Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential elections, this time with a focus on social media. The bottom line is that we should all be more aware of — and concerned about — how we are being manipulated by other countries that don’t necessarily share our goals.

The committee’s unanimous report reiterates that the Russian government made a concerted effort to support the election of Donald Trump as president by discrediting Hillary Clinton. They did this by exploiting numerous social media platforms and by targeting messages to specific groups of voters, often to pit them against one another. Much of their effort focused on African-American voters.

“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. “Moreover, the [Internet Research Agency] conducted a vastly more complex and strategic assault on the United States than was initially understood. The IRA’s actions in 2016 represent only the latest installment in an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on the citizens and democratic institutions of the United States.”

Using an array of social media — Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and others — the IRA spread its own content and boosted others’, all with the intent of disparaging Clinton and other Trump rivals while boosting Trump. One effort, for example, sought to boost support for independent Jill Stein among African-American voters. It did all this while spending a relatively small sum or money.

Traffic on some IRA-backed content increased after election day, showing that the Russian influence efforts are far from over.

In the face of such brazen efforts to sway American politics, there are several important things for Americans to acknowledge. The first is that Russia, and many other countries, are actively trying to sway elections and undermine our democracy. Knowing this, we all must be much more savvy consumers of online content.

Here’s one of the reports most startling findings, which comes from a November 2016 Buzzfeed analysis: intentionally false information on Facebook outperformed real news from 19 major news outlets combined in the three months preceding the November 2016 election.

So, when you see a social media post that pushes information that is not verified elsewhere — for instance, that Hillary Clinton approved the removal of “God” from the Pledge of Allegiance (why would she have the authority to do that anyway) or that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump — be skeptical. Spreading such false information is exactly what Russian trolls want.

“People need to know that they are being manipulated,” Sen. Angus King, a member of the Intelligence Committee, told the BDN during a recent meeting.

Social media companies also need to do more to flag — and in come cases, remove — false information. That remains a work in progress, yet we are wary of government regulation of social media.

Further, King reiterated his message that the U.S. government — including Trump — “needs to use a megaphone” to raise alarm about Russian meddling. So far, the president has instead cast doubt on the fact — verified by the Senate Intelligence Committee — that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election.

“This detailed, bipartisan report adds further incontrovertible proof to what we have long known to be true: Russia was relentless in its efforts to interfere in the 2016 election,” Sen. Susan Collins, also a member of the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “It is also evident that Russia is continuing to use social media in a covert attempt to influence public debate, shape Americans’ political views, and undermine our democratic institutions.”

“This report demonstrates how imperative it is that Congress take strong action to deter foreign nations from attempting to disrupt our elections,” she said.

The committee report did not delve into whether the Trump campaign cooperated with these Russian efforts. That will be the topic of the committee’s fifth and final report, which is scheduled to be completed early next year.

We are already well into the campaign for the 2020 election. We know that Russia and other countries are already trying to tilt outcomes to their liking. The most recent Senate Intelligence Committee report is an urgent reminder that we need to be more savvy and skeptical consumers of online content, because some of that content comes from entities that seek to weaken American democracy.

 



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