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The Present

Republican-led Senate report shows how Russian trolls attacked 2016 election

“We made America great,” one Russian operative joked as Trump’s victory became clear.

The Washington Post via Getty

Key Takeaways
  • A long-awaited bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report shows how Kremlin-directed operatives at the Internet Research Agency used disinformation to influence the 2016 presidential elections.
  • The report was published by a Republican-led Senate committee.
  • The committee issued several recommendations for how to protect against future disinformation campaigns, which are ongoing, the report states.

Shortly after it became clear in 2016 that Donald Trump was to become the next president of the United States, Russian disinformation operatives began celebrating.

“On November 9, 2016, a sleepless night was ahead of us,” said one operative at the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report. “And when around 8 a.m. the most important result of our work arrived, we uncorked a tiny bottle of champagne. . . took one gulp each and looked into each other’s eyes. . . We uttered almost in unison: ‘We made America great.'”

The long-awaited report — published Tuesday by a Republican-led Senate committee — reaffirms that Russian trolls engaged in a far-reaching social media disinformation campaign designed to sow discord in the American discourse and help Trump get elected. These efforts, the committee found, were “tasked and supported by” the Russian government.

“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,” the report states.

Russian trolls used several broad tactics to sway voters to the right.

They sought to suppress left-leaning votes by pushing three types of posts on social media: turnout suppression and election boycott; third-candidate promotion; and “candidate attack, all targeting nonwhites or likely Clinton voters.”

Researchers didn’t find similar attempts to suppress right-leaning votes.

Russian trolls responded to real-time political events in the U.S., such as when Clinton appeared to faint near a car after a 9/11 memorial service, with IRA operatives pushing hashtags like #HillarySickAtGroundZero, #ClintonCollapse, #ZombieHillary and #SickHillary.

Russian trolls also targeted African-Americans more than any other group, and the report found that 66 percent of the agency’s Facebook advertisement content contained a race-related term, while 96 percent of its YouTube content was related to race and police brutality.

“By far, race and related issues were the preferred target of the information warfare campaign designed to divide the country in 2016,” the report states.

​How can the U.S. better protect itself going forward?

The committee recommended that Congress take a closer look at Silicon Valley’s role in facilitating the ability of foreign actors to influence American discourse online.

“Issues such as privacy rules, identity validation, transparency in how data is collected and used, and monitoring for inauthentic or malign content, among others, deserve continued examination,” the report states, adding that Americans should be able to know the sources of online political advertisements.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said:

“We’re working closely with governments, outside experts and other companies to identify threats and share information. We have also invested in technology and people to block and remove fake accounts; find and remove coordinated manipulation campaigns; and bring unprecedented transparency to political advertising.”

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On the executive side, the committee recommended that the president make clear the threats that foreign trolls pose in future elections.

“The committee recommends that the executive branch should, in the run-up to the 2020 election, reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election.”

The committee concluded the report by recommending a public service announcement campaign, run by social media companies or government actors, “that promotes informed social media behavior and raises awareness about various types of foreign influence and interference activity that is targeting American citizens, businesses, and institutions.”