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Washington Post: Senate report details vast Russian meddling campaign

United States Senate chamber. (United States Congress/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. Senate is preparing to publish a report this week documenting the enormous breadth of a Russian disinformation campaign that sought to help President Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election, The Washington Post reports.

The Post on December 16 quoted details from a draft of the report that was prepared by data research groups for the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee — the first study on millions of social media posts provided to the Senate by Twitter, Facebook, and Google.

It said the report provides further specifics on known attempts by Russia’s Internet Research Agency to boost Trump’s 2016 election campaign and divide U.S. voters with targeted messages on controversial issues.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” the Post quoted the draft version of the report as saying.

“Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign,” the draft says. “The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract, and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

The bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee has not yet announced whether it endorses the findings by the researchers at Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and the New York-based social media analysis firm Graphika.

According to the Washington Post, the report expresses concern about the overall threat that social media poses to political debate within and between countries, warning that social media companies are now threats to democracy.

“Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike,” the report was quoted as saying.

The heads of the research groups that prepared the report, Oxford Internet Institute director Phil Howard and Graphika’s CEO John W. Kelly, both testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee on August 1 about what their initial work revealed concerning the extent of Russian influence on U.S. elections via social media.

Kelly also told MSNBC that the release of data by Twitter, Facebook, and Google clearly implicated Russia’s Internet Research Agency — which he described as a “contract shop” originally set up for “conditioning the Russian public” before, “at some point, they got the contract to boot up their American influence operations.”

‘Pretty Incontrovertible Proof’

Kelly dismissed the Kremlin’s repeated denials of evidence that Russian social media campaigns attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“It’s clearly Russia. There’s a lot of data from the Internet Research Agency that’s making its way into the public, and a lot of folks are looking at it, including us,” Kelly told MSNBC on August 2. “I’d say it’s pretty incontrovertible proof.”

Howard told the Senate committee on August 1 that his team of researchers at Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Project found three strategies “that Russian operators employ” when they seek to influence U.S. voters.

One strategy was to polarize voters on particular issues with the goal of getting “groups of voters to confront each other angrily, over social media and in the streets,” Howard testified.

Another strategy was social media campaigns that “promote or discredit particular senators, presidential candidates, and other public figures,” he said.

Finally, Howard said, Russia’s disinformation campaigns sought “to discourage citizens from voting” if they were “voters who might support a candidate” that the Kremlin found unpalatable.

“For example, voters are often told that voting day has been postponed, or that they can text message their vote in, or that their polling station has moved,” Howard said.

The Washington Post says the draft of the new report criticizes the “belated and uncoordinated response” of social media firms to Russian disinformation campaigns, and the failure of social media platforms to share more information with investigators after the Russian campaigns were discovered.

Twitter said in a statement that it had made “significant strides” to improve its digital defenses since the 2016 election.

“Our singular focus is to improve the health of the public conversation on our platform, and protecting the integrity of elections is an important aspect of that mission,” the statement said.

Google and Facebook did not immediately respond to questions about the report.