The Technology 202: New Senate report highlights how Russia’s social media campaign influenced Americans offline
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Efforts by Russia to influence the 2016 election weren’t limited to memes and Instagram accounts. A new bipartisan Senate report spotlights even more aggressive actions by Kremlin-allied provocateurs to manipulate people offline — influencing Americans to host protests, sign petitions and, in one instance, even teach self-defense classes.
The Senate Intelligence Committee — which prepared the report based on a series of hearings over the last two years — reported that Facebook identified at least 130 events that were amplified on its platform by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, reaching about 338,300 genuine Facebook users who engaged with the content.
“Russian-backed trolls pushing disinformation have also sought to connect with and potentially coopt individuals to take action in the real world,” the senators wrote. “From influencing unwitting Americans to retweet or spread propaganda, to convincing someone to host a real world protest, Russian disinformation agents employ online methods to attract and exploit a wide range of real people.”
The Russian operatives were able to organize a series of “Florida Goes Trump” rallies using Facebook groups like “Being Patriotic,” the Twitter account @March_For_Trump and other fabricated social media personas. Pretending to be Americans, the Russians talked with Trump campaign staff, bought Facebook and Instagram ads and even paid some people “to portray Hillary Clinton imprisoned in a cage that had been constructed on a flatbed truck for this purpose,” the report found. The report, citing a 2018 indictment, highlights how the IRA in some instances obtained help from the Trump campaign in promoting and organizing the rallies.
Russia’s efforts to use social media to exert its influence beyond the virtual world have previously been documented in media reports and the Mueller report. But the new Senate report puts the narrative in one place and raises new questions about whether the United States is ready if these tactics are repeated ahead of the 2020 election. Experts warned that it would be possible for Russian actors — and their counterparts in other countries — to once again seek to influence real-world events via social media.
Paul Barrett, a professor at New York University who recently wrote a report on disinformation in 2020, tells me Russia or other foreign actors will likely once again try to stage real-world events like protests and rallies. But he expects the 2020 approach to be more targeted.
Rather than targeting all African Americans in broad Facebook groups, Barrett predicts mobilizing smaller groups, like a minority group living in a specific city, will be the goal.
“One shift they may make is to go after smaller groups of Americans with a kind of narrowcasting as opposed to broadcasting,” Barrett told me. “In doing that, they will try to avoid detection by the social media companies which are much more on their guard this time around than last time.”
The Senate report outlines broad efforts to influence African Americans in 2016. In one instance, Russian actors used the Facebook page “Black4Black” to target African-American-led businesses in Cleveland to collect personal information in exchange for free promotions on social media. The Russian operation also paid an African American activist $700 to teach self-defense classes in a local park through the Facebook page “Black Fist.”
The Senate report underscores how unprepared the social media companies were for Russia efforts to plot such events during the last election. Their activity began fairly harmlessly in 2015, when the Russian operatives tried to plan a large event in New York City by offering Americans free hot dogs. Success led them to more aggressively use the Facebook events feature.
The events became more politically divisive closer to Election Day. In one instance in May 2016, Russian operatives organized a “Stop Islamization of Texas” event in front of the Islamic Da’wah Center in Houston, using the Facebook page “Heart of Texas.” At the same time, the operatives used the “United Muslims for America” page to organize a competing event, at the same time at the same location. The competing protests escalated, and according to media reports at the time, there were confrontations and verbal attacks.
“Just getting people at each others throats was a big part of the goal,” Barrett told me.
Social media companies have improved since 2016 when it comes to detecting fraudulent accounts and pages used to create such events. In August, Facebook removed a Washington-area event page listing to counter a white-supremacist rally after it found evidence that was part of a new Russian disinformation campaign.
Facebook says it’s also getting better at detecting fraudulent accounts, and it has improved its rapid response unit.
“Any act of foreign interference in our elections violates our values,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said. “That’s why we have stepped up our efforts to build strong defenses on multiple fronts. We’re working closely with governments, outside experts and other companies to identify threats and share information. We have also invested in technology and people to block and remove fake accounts; find and remove coordinated manipulation campaigns; and bring unprecedented transparency to political advertising.”
Barrett says avoiding a repeat of these efforts isn’t just up to the social media companies but also the Trump administration (the president himself has repeatedly shed doubt on whether it was the Russians who interfered to help him win, despite broad consensus by the intelligence community).
“It would have a huge potential effect if the president of the U.S. made a speech dedicated to warning people about foreign disinformation and even domestic disinformation for that matter,” Barrett said. “This president is not going to make that speech because he denies the problem exists, and that’s a real shame.”
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Twitter may have “inadvertently” taken emails and phone numbers provided by users for extra account security and used them for advertising purposes, the company announced in a blog post. The company didn’t disclose how many users may have been effected but says it ceased the practice last month.
But the privacy gaffe could still land the company in hot water with federal regulators, my colleague Tony Romm reports. The Federal Trade Commission penalized Facebook in a similar case for failing to disclose that it took phone numbers provided for two-factor authentication and used them to target advertisements to users. Twitter is also still under watch from a 2011 agreement with the FTC, the conditions of which could penalize Twitter with heavy fines if the agency decides the recent misuse violates that agreement. Twitter says that no personal data was shared with third parties or partners.
This isn’t Twitter’s first data-security scandal this year. The company temporarily accidentally disabled tweet protection settings for Android users in January. Months later the company revealed it was “inadvertently collecting and sharing iOS location data” with an unnamed party. Both issues were fixed.
NIBBLES: A secret intelligence court ruled last year that some FBI searches of thousands of pieces of raw intelligence violated the constitutional rights of Americans, Dustin Volz and Byron Tau at the Wall Street Journal report. The ruling — disclosed by the intelligence community Tuesday — marks a rare censure of U.S. surveillance activities and prompted fresh criticism of the FBI’s oversight of the program.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court found between 2017 and 2018 that the FBI was conducting searches targeting Americans that may have violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches. The searches also could have run afoul of the law authorizing the program, which requires that warrantless searches of the surveillance database be backed by criminal investigations or in pursuit of foreign intelligence information. In one case, a contractor used the highly secretive database to search for himself and relatives, Dustin and Byron report.
The disclosure of the ruling reignited criticism of the controversial government surveillance legal provision that authorized the program, Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Some senators argued the revelations underscore why Section 702 should not have been renewed earlier this year.
“Today’s release demonstrates how baseless the FBI’s position was and highlights Congress’ constitutional obligation to act independently and strengthen the checks and balances on government surveillance,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote. He also expressed concern that the remaining redacted portions of the court opinion contains additional information “the public deserves to know.”
Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.), who moved to let the program expire, criticized President Trump for pushing to reauthorize the program.
This is FISA 702. In 2018, I led the charge against the establishment to stop this program. President Trump attacked my efforts and signed it into law, with the support of Ryan, Pelosi, McCarthy, Nunes, and Schiff. It’s an outrageous violation of our Constitution and our rights. https://t.co/gv0EvEk5Yb
— Justin Amash (@justinamash) October 8, 2019
BYTES: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says nothing is off limits in the antitrust probe into Google recently launched by Texas and 50 other attorneys general — including forcing Google to sell off parts of its company, my colleague Tony Romm reports.
“We’re prepared for whatever the right thing to do is for consumers,” Paxton (R) said of the probe, the first major states’ investigation into Google in nearly a decade. “All of that’s on the table based on what we learn.”
A staunch Google critic who tries to avoid using the service himself, Paxton is bolstered by growing bipartisan frustration that the federal government has dropped the ball in regulating Google and other big tech giants. While the probe is currently digging into claims that Google’s advertising business unfairly disadvantages consumers and competitors, Paxton said investigators would expand the probe if they determine Google broke the law.
“If we end up learning things that lead us in other directions, we’ll certainly bring those back to the states and talk about whether we expand into other areas,” he said. This could include Google’s search business, which Texas probed nearly a decade ago. Paxton’s office is also in the early stages of an investigation into allegations that Google suppresses conservative content.
— News from the private sector:
YouTube is stepping up efforts to snag political ads from local TV and Facebook and letting buyers book slots through the end of February, when voting for the presidential nominations will begin in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere.
Wall Street Journal
The Pentagon’s controversial $10bn JEDI cloud computing deal is one of the most lucrative defense contracts ever. Amazon’s in pole position to win—and its move into the military has been a long time coming.
MIT Technology Review
— News from the public sector:
— Coming up:
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host a hearing to discuss the pros and cons of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act on Oct. 16.
My colleague Geoffrey A. Fowler tries to remove batteries from an AirPod. The difficulty in replacing the batteries has left Apple consumers with no other option but to buy replacements, he writes.