OPINION — On the day that special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on election interference came out, cable news anchors strained to race through its 448 pages and describe the findings, all in the same breath. Computer sleuths hacked the document’s setting to let users search for “Trump,” “president,” “collusion” and “Russia.” Talking-head lawyers feverishly opined that Volume I contained less incriminating information than Volume II.
But around the country, voters mostly gave an “Is that all there is?” shoulder shrug and went back to their corners. Many members of Congress admitted they didn’t even bother to read it.
Nearly six months later, and to almost no fanfare last week while Congress was in recess, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the second of two installments of its own bipartisan investigation into roughly the same topic. The slim, 85-page report reads like a Russian spy novel crossed with a sequel to Orwell’s most dystopian version of the future — right down to an interview with a paid Russian troll who said his experience in 2016, pitting American voters against each other with social media platforms of their own making, was like being “a character in the book ‘1984’ by George Orwell — a place where you have to write that white is black and black is white.”
Telling it like it is
Unlike Mueller, who seemed to take great pains not to point fingers and softened his recommendations, the Intelligence Committee, led by Chairman Richard Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, put its warnings in the starkest possible terms. First, the Russians deliberately attacked American voters with an active measures campaign in 2016 to benefit Donald Trump and destroy Hillary Clinton. On the morning after Election Day, a former troll told the committee, exhausted hackers in St. Petersburg, Russia, uncorked tiny of champagne. They looked into each other’s eyes. “We uttered almost in unison: ‘We made America great.’”
Because of Russia’s success, the committee also warned that China, North Korea, Iran and other malicious actors are activiely studying what Americans fell for (nearly everything) in order to use even more sophisticated techniques in 2020 — including at this very moment. And finally, the committee made clear that Americans themselves need to both wake up and smarten up. Only by being more sophisticated and intelligent social media users will voters truly protect themselves and our elections in the years to come.
The tactics and strategies that the Kremlin directed included every major social media platform you can think of — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — and a few you’d never suspect, including Pinterest, LinkedIn and 4Chan. The hashtags alone tell the story— #MAGA #TrumpTrain #Hillary4Prison #ZombieHillary #SickHillary. Along with anti-Clinton stories, they also pushed out messages against Trump’s primary rivals like Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Once in the general election, they pumped up third-party candidates to siphon support away from Clinton with posts including, “A vote for Jill Stein is not a wasted vote.”
Offline, Russian agents also enticed American citizens to teach self-defense courses in Florida, and acquired Trump campaign gear, organized rallies and hired actors to attend those rallies. They created a buzzing hive of online trolls based in St. Petersburg, who received daily quotas for targeting Americans online, including 50 Facebook posts per day. A list of American holidays reminded them when to slow their posts to avoid detection from online providers.
Americans gobbled it up. The Senate Intelligence report details a troubling fact: in the three months leading up to Election Day, Russian-planted false information on Facebook outperformed real news.
Using techniques the KGB tried on Soviet citizens during the Cold War, the committee described the hallmarks of the Russian disinformation campaign in 2016, including messages to erode Americans’ trust in investigative and political journalists; an emphasis on speed to win the first impression of readers, which is always the most resilient; topics designed to exploit racial divisions; and a volume so enormous that overwhelmed audiences can no longer discern what’s real from what’s not. Finally, almost all of the information was deceptive, or as one committee witness called it, a “firehose of falsehood.”
Far from over
Read that list carefully and you’ll notice it could also describe much of Trump’s daily Twitter feed, a conclusion the committee did not touch, but one that’s hard to miss. Another key feature of both the Russian efforts and the president’s is that all are unconstrained by ideology. The committee reported that a single computer in Russia pushed out hundreds of both pro- and anti-Colin Kaepernick posts virtually simultaneously.
Why rile up Americans on both sides of an emotional racial controversy? It’s “like arming both sides of a civil war” before you have to deal with it yourself, a witness told Senate investigators. Ultimately, as CQ Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski reported last week, the goal was to suppress African American voters, who were overwhelmingly for Clinton, and keep at least a small portion from bothering to go to the polls at all.
If you think that the Russians stopped working after that champagne toast to making America great, think again. The report describes the ongoing countermeasures actually increased on the day after the election, when Russia “stepped on the gas.”
The most chilling takeaway, beyond how ready Americans seem to believe the very worst about each other, is the sense that the essence of our democracy is under attack, and we won’t always have the luxury to save or repair it. Russia destabilized the fabric of American families and culture in 2016 with a few thousand dollars of Facebook ads. (Google “uncle + Republican + Thanksgiving” if you don’t believe me.) If individual Americans keep falling for their tricks to destroy our democracy, we eventually won’t recognize what’s worth saving anymore.
If you read nothing else now that Congress is back in session, take a moment to digest this report. It may be the most important document you ever read.
Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.