Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr summed up how lawmakers and Trump administration officials have failed to acknowledge the dangerous problem of foreign influence operations in America on Wednesday, with an internet meme.
“Some feel that we as a society are sitting in a burning room, calmly drinking a cup of coffee, telling ourselves ‘this is fine.’ That’s not fine,” Burr said. “We should no longer be talking about if the Russians attempted to interfere with American society. They’ve been doing it since the days of the Soviet Union, and they’re still doing it today.”
These last few weeks have yielded facts that press home the point that Russia continues to interfere with the American democratic process — and that key actors, from lawmakers to administration officials to President Trump himself, have taken few steps to significantly address that threat.
Social media is increasingly becoming a distorted landscape, as one expert witness testified before the Senate intelligence committee on Wednesday, arguing that counterfeit content on these networks is eclipsing real American political opinion.
“Russian manipulation did not stop in 2016. After Election Day, the Russian government stepped on the gas… Today the automated accounts of the far left and far right extremes of the American political spectrum produce as many as 25-30 times the number of messages per day on average as genuine political accounts across the mainstream,” said Dr. John Kelly, the CEO of Graphika, a social media intelligence firm. “The extremes are screaming while the majority whispers.”
Lawmakers and Trump administration officials have been consistently stating since the 2016 presidential elections that the Russians continue to be engaged in disrupting the American political process, and that came into sharp view this week.
Facebook announced on Tuesday that it had disrupted a new political influence operation with suspected links to Russia. The operation involved more than 30 fake accounts that posted a 9,500 posts and 150 ads for an audience of 290,000 followers.
The operation also attempted to translate social media clout into real world impact, helping boost legitimate counter-protests to a planned white nationalist rally in Washington, D.C., later this month. Because of the influence operation’s ties to the event, the protest’s Facebook page was shut down.
“Security is an arms race, and it’s never done,” said Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, as she announced the disruption of the influence operation Tuesday afternoon. “We face determined, well-funded adversaries who won’t give up and are constantly changing tactics.”
Politicians have also stepped forward in recent days to say they have been attacked by hackers. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said her office was targeted by an apparent Russian cyber attack.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., told NPR’s All Things Considered on Wednesday that her office has also been targeted.
“Some of our staff have gotten phishing attempts on their email,” Shaheen said. “But the particular incident that we turned over to the FBI had to do with someone calling the office to … impersonating a Latvian official, trying to set up a meeting to talk to me about Russian sanctions and about Ukraine.”
But even as these facts indicate that the room is on fire, the nation’s decision-makers have been awfully slow to address the imminent danger.
President Trump chaired a meeting of the National Security Council last week on safeguarding elections that resulted in no new directives to address the threats. His former homeland security advisor, Tom Bossert, recently told Yahoo News he’s concerned about “who’s minding the store” in terms of developing strategy for cyber security.
A State Department effort to combat foreign efforts to interfere with American elections, called the Global Engagement Center, has been stalled.
“There was the Global Engagement Center that was established, that’s now tied up in some funding morass, and we’re not really clear what the status of that is,” Renee DiResta, a computational propaganda expert with Data For Democracy, said at the Senate hearing Wednesday.
That same day, Senate Republicans voted down an effort to spend an additional $250 million on election security ahead of the 2018 midterms. Republicans who opposed it argued that Congress has already approved $380 million in grants for election security — and they haven’t yet been able to assess the effectiveness of that funding.
Meanwhile, legislation proposed by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen that requires new sanctions on Russia if it is found to interfere in future elections has gained momentum, but has not yet received a hearing as the November midterms near.
And, of course, the president of the United States has vacillated on whether or not Russian interference was a “hoax.” In a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, President Trump appeared to put Putin’s denials on par with the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had interfered.
Trump then reversed himself and said that he had misspoken. But also indicated to reporters that he didn’t believe Russia was still targeting the U.S.
Not long thereafter, he appeared to reverse himself yet again and called Russian interference before the 2016 election “a big hoax.”
At Wednesday’s Senate intelligence committee hearing on foreign efforts to use social media networks to interfere with American democracy, one expert characterized Russian influence operations content as “less news, more memes.”
And it was Sen. Burr himself who used an internet meme to sum up official Washington’s current reaction, in the face of mounting evidence that ongoing interference in U.S. politics is no hoax.