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African Americans top targets of 2016 Russian info warfare, Senate panel finds

Panel says campaigns, media outlets need to verify source of viral social media posts before sharing

Sens. Mark Warner, left, and Richard M. Burr have led the Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian election interference. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sens. Mark Warner, left, and Richard M. Burr have led the Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian election interference. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Senate Intelligence Committee has confirmed the extent of the Russian government’s expertise at exploiting racial divisions in America.

Among the key takeaways of the second volume of the committee’s study of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election is the extent to which minorities were targeted.

“No single group of Americans was targeted by [Internet Research Agency] information operatives more than African-Americans. By far, race and related issues were the preferred target of the information warfare campaign designed to divide the country in 2016,” the unclassified version of the report from the intelligence panel said.

Senate investigators cited an “overwhelming operational emphasis on race,” on the part of Russia’s IRA, a finding the committee reached after a review of postings and advertising on Facebook, Twitter and an assortment of other social media platforms.

That finding is in line with prior reporting.

Perhaps the most glaring example highlighted by the panel was the extent to which Russian Twitter activity focused on such issues as the debate over whether NFL players like former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick should be required to stand during the national anthem before NFL games.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., one of the two 2020 White House hopefuls serving on the Intelligence panel, highlighted in particular the findings related to fostering racial divisions, as well as efforts to dissuade minority voters from going to the polls.

“Russia engaged in tactics designed to suppress the votes of Black Americans in particular. Russian operatives fraudulently posed as Black Americans to actively discourage the Black community from voting,” Harris said in a statement. “Social media companies must 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.”

The key findings also left no doubt as to the purpose of the malign actions by Russian state-supported actors. The IRA was not seeking to merely undermine confidence in U.S. elections, the panel report said.

“The Committee found that the IRA sought 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,” a summary said. “The Committee found that IRA social media activity was overtly and almost invariably supportive of then-candidate Trump to the detriment of Secretary Clinton’s campaign.”

The committee, led by Chairman Richard M. Burr of North Carolina and top Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, released the first volume of its comprehensive investigation in July. That piece focused on Russian efforts to interfere with the apparatus of election administration.

The second volume followed five open hearings and numerous closed-door sessions on topics related to social media.

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Burr said in a statement that Americans should be prepared to see more efforts by Russia and others to continue to attempt to foster divisions within U.S. society.

“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,” Burr said. “While Russia may have been the first to hone the modern disinformation tactics outlined in this report, other adversaries, including China, North Korea, and Iran, are following suit.”

“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,” added Warner.

Burr, Warner and the rest of the members of the Intelligence Committee also had a word of warning to campaigns, media outlets and basically anyone with a large social media presence about viral content across all social media platforms: verify its provenance before amplifying it.

“The Committee recommends that media organizations establish clear guidelines for using social media accounts as sources to prevent the spread of state-sponsored disinformation,” the panel said in its key findings.

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