A new report by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee reaffirms what the White House refuses to accept: Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help then-candidate Donald Trump and to hurt his presidential rivals. The findings are alarming for the breadth of Russia’s operation, the Kremlin’s direct involvement and the ongoing threat posed by foreign meddling to American democracy. But perhaps more than anything, the report amounts to a bipartisan rebuke of the White House’s own disinformation campaign to shift the blame away from Russia.
The committee, chaired by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., released a second report this week that furthered the findings of America’s intelligence community that Russia launched a broad attack on the 2016 election. Russian operatives, it reported, used an array of social media platforms to wage “a sustained campaign of information warfare against the United States aimed at influencing how this nation’s citizens think about themselves, their government, and their fellow Americans.”
Masquerading as Americans, the report found, Russian trolls used targeted ads and falsified news articles “to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States," looking “to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences'' with the goal of "influencing how this nation’s citizens think about themselves, their government, and their fellow Americans.” According to one analysis, in the final three months leading up to Election Day, the top-performing intentionally false stories on Facebook actually drew more shares and comments than the top news stories from 19 major news outlets combined.
Russian operatives, the committee held, did more than work “to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin.” Other candidates whom the Kremlin feared would be tougher on Moscow than Trump were also targeted, including three of his Republican primary opponents, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Moreover, the panel found Moscow’s election interference “was part of a broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society," the breadth of which was “vastly more complex and strategic” than initially understood. And “no single group of Americans” was targeted more than African-Americans, the committee found, with two-thirds of all Facebook ads related to race.
The panel recommended that the executive branch, Congress and industry take numerous steps to curtail these foreign influence operations, finding that Russian activity on social media did not stop but increased after Election Day 2016, up by 238 percent on Instagram alone. “After election day,” one analyst noted, “the Russian government stepped on the gas.” But what confidence can Americans have that the president will follow through when he continues to fan the debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine - not Russia - meddled in the election and for Clinton’s benefit?
The Senate committee has performed a valuable public service in this hyper-partisan environment by putting facts before political affiliation. However the impeachment inquiry proceeds, Congress should heed the warnings about foreign influence and work to bring greater transparency to America’s elections process.
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