Senate Intel report urges action to prevent Russian meddling in 2020 election

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday recommended a set of sweeping steps for Congress, President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE and social media companies to take to prevent Russian disinformation efforts from impairing the 2020 elections.
 
In a bipartisan report, the panel said Congress should consider legislation to increase the transparency of political advertisements on social media. It also called on social media companies to improve efforts to notify users of exposure to disinformation, three years after Russian actors directed by the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
 
"This challenge requires an integrated approach that brings together the public and private sectors," the committee wrote. "This approach must be rooted in protecting democratic values, including freedom of speech and the right to privacy. The Federal government, civil society, and the private sector, including social media and technology companies, each have an important role to play in deterring and defending against foreign influence operations that target the United States."
ADVERTISEMENT
 
The report is the second volume to be released as part of the committee’s two-year investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. The first volume, released in July, focused on Russian efforts to interfere in U.S. voting infrastructure.
 
The panel recommended Tuesday that the Trump administration “reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election,” such as establishing an interagency task force to monitor foreign use of social media to spread disinformation.
 
The committee's recommendations come after months of intense partisan debate over how to address election security vulnerabilities, with the House passing multiple sweeping election security and reforms bills, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Trump again vetoes resolution blocking national emergency for border wall Trump invites congressional leaders to meeting on Turkey MORE (R-Ky.) blocking them in the Senate, citing concerns around federalizing elections.
 
Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump defends 'crime buster' Giuliani amid reported probe Louisiana voters head to the polls in governor's race as Trump urges GOP support Trump urges Louisiana voters to back GOP in governor's race then 'enjoy the game' MORE (D-N.Y.) issued a statement in the wake of the report's release, saying that the report "makes it crystal clear to everyone that Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinDemocratic front-runners defend their age during debate Candidates unleash on Trump over Syria move, say he's weakening US Erdoğan says he will never declare Syria ceasefire: Turkish media MORE exploited social media to spread false information in the 2016 elections and that the Senate must take action to ensure Americans know who is behind online political ads to help prevent it from happening again."
 
Schumer also criticized McConnell for "hindering a full response" to election vulnerabilities ahead of the 2020 elections, saying that McConnell "continues to block a full-throated U.S. response today by burying meaningful election security bills in his legislative graveyard."
 
The new report underscored many of the findings from former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerFox News legal analyst says Trump call with Ukraine leader could be 'more serious' than what Mueller 'dragged up' Lewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network MORE that he detailed in his own report released earlier this year, including that Russian actors were directed by the Kremlin to help Trump win the 2016 election.
 
The Senate report noted that agents of the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) “sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Poll: Warren leads Biden in Maine by 12 points MORE's chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin."
 
The panel cited the “close-ties” of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the director of the IRA, to Russian President Vladimir Putin as evidence of “significant Kremlin support, authorization, and direction of the IRA’s operations and goals.”
 
The committee wrote that IRA social media disinformation efforts were part of a “broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society,” and noted that IRA activity involved in spreading malicious content on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube increased after Election Day 2016.

The IRA aimed disinformation on social media at African Americans “more than any other age group or demographic” in order to exploit “hot-button issues with racial undertones,” according to the committee, through the use of Instagram accounts, Facebook pages and Twitter trends.

As part of efforts to target black Americans, the report detailed how IRA operatives posing as American activists convinced some individuals to sign petitions and to sign up for self-defense classes. The committee cited this an example of ways the IRA “furthered its reach” from the digital to the physical world.

ADVERTISEMENT

The panel said that the IRA carried out “a social media campaign designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States” with the goal of favoring Trump over Clinton.

As part of his probe, Mueller indicted 13 Russian individuals and three businesses for “information warfare against the United States,” including Prigozhin. Last month, Prigozhin, who is known as “Putin’s chef” due to his catering company’s use by the Kremlin, was also sanctioned by the Treasury Department for his efforts to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections.

The committee recommended various steps to take to prevent these types of interference efforts from happening again, including that Congress “consider whether any existing laws may hinder cooperation and whether information sharing should be formalized,” and that Congress “consider legislation to ensure Americans know the source behind online political advertisements, similar to existing requirements for television, radio, and satellite ads.”

Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrJuan Williams: Trump, the conspiracy theory president Blood cancer patients deserve equal access to the cure Senate Intelligence report triggers new calls for action on election security MORE (R-N.C.) said in a statement that “Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election."

Burr noted that Russia’s 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.”

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerYang compares U.S. election tampering to Russia's election interference efforts Mark Warner nominates Bryan Cranston to play him in a movie Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservative politicians, pundits MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the committee, emphasized in a statement that “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. 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.”

Both Burr and Warner recommended various steps that Congress, social media companies and law enforcement should take to prevent or lessen social media interference efforts during future elections, with Burr emphasizing the need for stakeholders to “work together” and for Americans to “use social media responsibly, as discerning and informed consumers.”

Warner advocated for Congress to “step up and establish guardrails to protect the integrity of our democracy,” while also demanding “transparency” from social media companies on the content users are exposed to, and making sure these companies take steps to identify non-authentic users. 

“It’s our responsibility to listen to the warnings of our Intelligence Community and take steps to prevent future attacks from being waged on our own social media platforms,” Warner said.

The panel is expected to release three more volumes detailing the findings of its probe this fall, including those on its findings regarding the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference, the Obama administration’s response to Russian interference and on whether there was coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow sometime in the fall leading up to Election Day.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Warren leads in speaking time during debate MORE (D-Calif.), who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, put out a statement after the report was released, calling on social media companies to “step up their efforts to fight disinformation and remove inflammatory content on their platforms, including by ensuring their workforces are diverse enough to identify and understand the cultural nuances that foreign actors exploit to divide and harm Americans.”

Harris also urged Trump to “stop playing into our adversaries’ hands,” saying that “with every dishonest and inflammatory tweet, the president advances the interests of our adversaries by dividing the American people. This bipartisan report should cause social media companies to seriously question the role they play in advancing the president’s dangerous rhetoric.”

Last month, Harris called on Twitter to suspend Trump’s twitter account after his attacks on the anonymous whistleblower who came forward recently alleging election interference efforts by Trump.

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Warren leads in speaking time during debate MORE (D-Minn.), another 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and the ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee with jurisdiction over election security, also spoke out on Tuesday during an event in Minneapolis in support of passing election security legislation following Russian interference efforts in 2016. 

“We have a common set of facts about what happened, and we know that there is a continued threat against our democracy,” Klobuchar said. “What we need to do now is address these facts with a common purpose — to protect our democracy and make sure our election systems are resilient against future attacks.”