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US Senate panel blasts Russian election meddling, efforts to ‘sow discord’

The Intelligence Committee (Air Force/Released)

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

A bipartisan U.S. Senate report on Russia’s use of social media has determined that a Kremlin-backed “troll farm” sought to boost the campaign of Donald Trump and hurt rival Hilary Clinton, largely backing up the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community.

The Intelligence Committee’s report released on October 8 also said the work of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) “was part of a broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society.”

While the conclusions echo those made by other U.S. agencies and panels, the bipartisan nature of the Senate report is likely to carry additional weight amid continued denials by Trump and his supporters that Russia sought to boost his 2016 presidential campaign.

The IRA, a St. Petersburg-based organization known as the Russian “troll farm,” is owned by the Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and was also mentioned repeatedly by U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into Russian election interference.

Washington has imposed sanctions on several entities and people associated with the IRA, including Prigozhin, for its actions.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia meddled in the 2016 campaign in an “influence campaign” ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in an attempt to help eventual winner Trump and denigrate Clinton, his Democratic rival on the November 8 ballot.

Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling, completed earlier this year, largely supported those findings.

Trump has denied allegations he colluded with Russians in the effort, calling the investigation into the matter a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.” Putin has denied that Moscow meddled in the U.S. political system.

‘Sowing Societal Discord’

Republican Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said in a statement summarizing the bipartisan study that “Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election.”

“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. While Russia may have been the first to hone the modern disinformation tactics outlined in this report, other adversaries, including China, North Korea, and Iran, are following suit,” he added.

Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the panel, warned of continuing and future efforts by the Kremlin to meddle in U.S. elections.

“Now, with the 2020 elections on the horizon, there’s no doubt that bad actors will continue to try to weaponize the scale and reach of social media platforms to erode public confidence and foster chaos,” he said.

“The Russian playbook is out in the open for other foreign and domestic adversaries to expand upon — and their techniques will only get more sophisticated.”

The report also concluded that the Russian effort targeted African-Americans more than any other U.S. group during the presidential campaign.

“Through individual posts, location targeting, Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and Twitter trends, the IRA focused much of its efforts on stoking divisions around hot-button issues with racial undertones,” it said.

The study also found that Russia’s efforts to meddle increased, rather than decreased, following Election Day in November 2016.

‘Deterrence Framework’

Among the recommendations, it said social media networks must work harder to allow for greater information sharing between the public and private sector to prevent abuses in the future, and it called for Congress to “facilitate productive coordination” with regard to the effort.

“Social media companies do not consistently provide a notification or guidance to users who have been exposed to inauthentic accounts,” it warned.

It said Congress should consider legislation to ensure that U.S. citizens know the source behind online political advertisements, referring to similar requirements for television, radio, and other ads that currently exist.

The committee also recommended that the U.S. administration publicly reinforce the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election. Trump has been accused by critics of not doing enough to prevent further meddling.

The report said the administration “should establish an interagency task force to monitor foreign nations’ use of social media platforms for democratic interference and develop a deterrence framework.”

It also said candidates, campaigns, and other public figures should scrutinize sourcing before sharing or promoting new content within their own social media network.