In a Senate Intelligence hearing today about Russia-backed misinformation campaigns, chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) invoked a meme to describe Congress’ inaction on the issue. It’s as if, Burr said, Congress was “sitting in a burning room calmly with a cup of coffee, telling ourselves ‘this is fine.’”
The panel of experts at today’s hearing included directors and researchers from organizations like the German Marshall Fund, the Oxford Internet Institute, and New Knowledge. They were tasked with identifying clear and effective actions that platforms and lawmakers could take to counteract the Russian government’s efforts to infiltrate American discourse by means of social media. Over the course of two hours, it became clear that many lawmakers see interference as a nearly impossible task to conquer for both the platforms and the legislative body that could regulate them.
The panel comes on the heels of a white paper released on Monday by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), which outlined 20 possible solutions for addressing the misinformation efforts led by the Russian government and its Internet Research Association during the 2016 presidential election and beyond. Those solutions included requiring more transparency from platforms, labeling bots, and providing more data for researchers. Many of those same proposals were brought up by today’s panelists.
Today’s hearing also comes one day after Facebook revealed that the company had recently discovered “inauthentic” political social media accounts and campaigns on its platform. “Twenty-one months after the 2016 election – and only three months before the 2018 elections – Russian-backed operatives continue to infiltrate and manipulate social media to hijack the national conversation and set Americans against each other. They were doing it in 2016. They are still doing it today,” Warner said.
Lawmakers praised Facebook for disclosing the suspect accounts and shutting them down, and panelists warned that such influence campaigns may be ongoing. “We see from the IRA data how the same Russian organization will use sophisticated false personas and automated amplification, on the left and the right, in an attempt to exploit an already divided political landscape,” John Kelly founder and CEO of data analytics company Graphika said. “Our current landscape is particularly vulnerable to these sorts of attacks.”
Kelly also produced a surprising statistic: far-right and far-left bot accounts produce 25 to 30 times more posts and messages per day than standard, authentic user accounts. Committee members and panelists said that the flood of content aided in increasing the divide among the American populous with memes and posts surrounding highly emotional issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. “These types of asymmetric attacks – which include foreign operatives appearing to be Americans engaging in online public discourse – almost by design slip between the seams of our free speech guarantees and our legal authorities and responsibilities,” Warner said.
As he said in his white paper, Warner suggested that platforms adopt simple, immediate solutions like encouraging social platforms to label inauthentic accounts with tags identifying them as bots. He also encouraged the development of media literacy and educational efforts, similar to what Facebook did late last year by contacting users who had interacted with Russian propaganda on its platform. Panelists called for platforms to be more transparent with the discovery of Russian-backed accounts and to offer researchers more data in order to help predict and better control foreign attacks in the future.
Today’s open hearing was one in a series following the 2016 election from both House and Senate panels grilling tech leaders, like Mark Zuckerberg, over Russian election interference. On September 5th, members of the intelligence committee will meet with senior executives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google. In that hearing, Warner and others will press the platforms to be more proactive and transparent with foreign accounts and bots in the future.
“Time is running out, frankly, and I think we have to move legislatively to set in motion a framework of disclosure,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) said.