Senator Sheldon Whitehouse co-chaired a subcommittee hearing yesterday that shed new light on the extent to which Russian operatives used social media to turn American voters against one another in the run up to the 2016 election.
“We are trying in the Subcommittee to lay out the Kremlin playbook on election interference generally,” Whitehouse told the Washington Post after the hearing. “And we are looking to delve into which elements of the the Kremlin playbook were deployed in the United States specifically.”
Executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified to the extent that Russian operatives exploited social media to “sow division and distrust,” said Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel.
“We build tools that help people connect,” Stretch told the Subcommittee. “Our goal is to help bring people closer together. These foreign actors sought to drive people apart.”
On Facebook, as many as 126 million users were exposed to ads created by Russian operatives, according to Stretch. Twitter’s Sean Edgett said there were some 2,752 profiles controlled by Russians and some 30,000 Russian bots tweeted more than 1.4 million times. And Google’s Richard Salgado said there were more than 1,100 videos on YouTube created by Russian operatives.
And then there is the possibility that the Trump campaign worked with Russia and Wikileaks to steal then spread emails hacked from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In his opening statement, Whitehouse said the media and Mueller investigation have already found evidence of this.
“It’s been reported that Trump confidante Roger Stone communicated with Guccifer 2.0 through a cut-out, and we learned last week from a press account that the CEO of Cambridge Analytica—a data-analytics firm that worked for the Trump campaign—offered assistance to Julian Assange,” Whitehouse said. “And of course we now have the statement of offense prepared by the Mueller probe. But we don’t know the full story of who coordinated with Wikileaks or even directly with Russian hackers.”
Rhode Island’s junior senator is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism. This was its fourth hearing on “Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online.” Watch the full hearing here.
“I take it we can all agree that Russia did in fact interfere and meddle in the 2016 election,” Whitehouse asked the three tech executives, who each agreed. “And I gather that all of your companies have moved beyond any notion that your job is only to provide a platform and whatever goes across it is not your affair?”
The executives agree with this, too. “This type of activist not only creates a bad user experience but also distrust for the platform,” said Edgett, of Twitter. “We are committed to working every single day to getting better at solving these problems.”
The hearing was well-covered by the national media, including in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post also created this three minute highlight reel video of the hearing:
CBS News featured a portion of Whitehouse’s opening statement in a tweet.
Sen. Whitehouse (D-RI): "How can Western democracies interrupt this vicious cycle while respecting our commitment to freedom of speech?" pic.twitter.com/ukxwQJEMDs
— CBS News (@CBSNews) October 31, 2017
Below is the text of Whitehouse’s opening statement to the Subcommittee:
Thank you, Senator Graham, for organizing this fourth subcommittee hearing into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. I’m very proud of the work we are doing on this issue. I hope it will continue, and I hope that you and your team see me and my team as loyal partners in this effort. Understanding what happened – how Russia applied the varied methods in its election interference toolbox to interfere with our democracy – is an important step toward protecting the integrity of future elections and of our democratic process. Each hearing this subcommittee holds gets us closer to that understanding.
At our first hearing back in March, we talked about the subcommitee’s intent “to begin a public conversation about the means and methods Russia uses to undermine democratic government.” We heard testimony from expert witnesses who outlined the various tools through which the Kremlin exerts influence abroad—from traditional intelligence methods like compromising corrupt business and political figures, to hacking and leaking stolen information, to disinformation, propaganda, and provocation through both traditional media and social media networks.
At a subcommittee hearing in May, I went through a checklist of Russia’s toolbox to see which methods had been deployed against the United States in 2016. We’ll learn more today about one of those methods, propaganda, fake news, trolls, and bots, from representatives of some major American tech companies and from outside experts. The Russian government exploited social media platforms as part of a wide-ranging disinformation campaign targeted against America and American voters. As we explore how that campaign worked, and how we might better insulate ourselves in the future, let’s recap what we’ve learned in our hearings, and what we still don’t know.
We certainly saw the hacking and theft of political information by Russia, something no serious person can dispute.
Timed leaks of damaging material were the fruits of that crime; we know they happened, but we still don’t know how the decisions were made about what to leak and when, and who made them. It’s been reported that Trump confidante Roger Stone communicated with Guccifer 2.0 through a cut-out, and we learned last week from a press account that the CEO of Cambridge Analytica—a data-analytics firm that worked for the Trump campaign—offered assistance to Julian Assange. And of course we now have the statement of offense prepared by the Mueller probe. But we don’t know the full story of who coordinated with Wikileaks or even directly with Russian hackers.
Another method we’ve heard about is the exploitation of shady business and financial ties. We’ve heard testimony from a number of witnesses both here in the subcommittee and at hearings of the Helsinki Commission that the U.S. has become a haven for secretive shell corporations that can allow foreign influence schemes to channel funds to compromised individuals and exert political influence.
We still know next to nothing about the President’s business dealings in Russia or with Russians, except that he’s long chased after deals there. The President’s tax returns would clarify a great deal, and hopefully put an end to some of these questions. But those tax returns have not been made public.
Paul Manafort’s long history of suspicious business relationships with Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs has now yielded his indictment. The indictment exposed gaping holes in FARA enforcement and in picking up on false statements and international money-laundering. If you can use his alleged scheme to buy property, why not use it to make anonymous political expenditures or spend money to influence elections?
We still don’t have answers about the President’s curious relationship with Felix Sater, who was chasing Russian business in consultation with senior Trump Organization executive Michael Cohen well after the presidential campaign had begun. We haven’t been able to speak with Sater or Cohen, so we still don’t have answers on this front.
We know that the Russians try to corrupt and compromise political figures in order to exert influence over them. We don’t know to what extent that happened here, but we do know that the Trump campaign and the administration has had a very bad habit of forgetting about meetings with Russians. Michael Flynn is still the only person to have been held accountable for hiding improper contacts with Russia, even as more and more such contacts have emerged in the intervening months.
Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and the President’s son met with a Russian lawyer sent to deliver damaging information about his opponent on behalf of the Russian government in June 2016. Mr.Kushner has apparently amended his security-clearance application multiple times to reflect more than 100 foreign contacts he initially left off – including meetings with Ambassador Kislyak, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and the head of a major Russian bank. The leaders of the Judiciary Committee sent letters to the White House in June and July of this year with questions about the status of Mr. Kushner’s clearance. To this day those questions have been ignored.
Nearly six months after we first ran through that checklist, we still have more questions than answers. My sincere hope remains that we will find those answers, so that we accomplish this subcommittee’s primary purpose, which is to help us learn how to protect the country from foreign political influence in our elections. Today we have an opportunity to learn more about how Russia exploited social media as part of its disinformation campaign, and to share some of those details with the public. I appreciate the cooperation of Facebook, and Twitter, and Google in sending representatives here today, and in working with our staff over the last several weeks to voluntarily produce information.
The Intelligence Community Assessment published in January reported that, and I quote them here, “Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls.’” Russian state-backed networks RT and Sputnik are an important disseminator of messages designed to undermine confidence in the legitimacy of Western institutions and governments. Social media troll armies, like the one operated by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, help to amplify those messages, often posing as Americans on Facebook and Twitter to “launder” Russian propaganda messages and obscure their Russian origin.
According to Ukrainian scholar Anton Shekhovtsov, Russian media “implant propagandistic narratives in the international media sphere” and they do so with the express intent of having them picked up on social networks. In Russia’s best-case scenario, traditional media will pick up a fake story from social media and give it legitimacy. “When narrative laundering is successful,” according to Shekhovtsov, “propagandistic narratives can become part of the mainstream media sphere.”
How can Western democracies interrupt this vicious cycle while respecting our commitment to freedom of speech? Greater transparency and disclosure about the source of information – especially paid political advertising – is a necessary first step. But our adversaries have access to tools well beyond traditional political advertising. They are using our own social networks—our friendships, our families and our biases and viewpoints—against us, to achieve their political ends.
I look forward to hearing from our witnesses about the ways we can work with tech community to ensure that we are better prepared to confront Russian disinformation in the future. And again, I express my appreciation to our chairman, Senator Graham.