The tensions coursing through america over racism and policing are likely targets for adversaries seeking to influence the November election, lawmakers and experts warn — and there are signs that Russia is again seeking to exploit the divide.
Earlier this year, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pulled down dozens of accounts with names like “Blacks Facts Untold” that had been followed or liked by hundreds of thousands of people. The accounts were fake, created by an association in Africa with links to Russia’s Internet Research Agency.
In a similar way, this past week Facebook announced it had removed a network of accounts linked to that “troll factory” that had pushed out stories approximately race and other issues. The network had tricked unwitting American writers to post satisfied to the pages.
It’s a troubling but familiar sample from Russia, as the Internet Research Agency overwhelmingly focused on race and the Black Lives Matter Movement when targeting america in 2016. The goal, a part of the Russian playbook for decades, used to be to sow chaos by posting satisfied on both sides of the racial divide. Indeed, “no unmarried group of Americans used to be targeted by IRA information operatives more than African-Americans,” concluded a outline from the Senate Intelligence Committee.
With the election just two months absent, some lawmakers are worried that the Russian efforts, now evolved and more sophisticated than four years ago, could again take hold. They fear the Trump administration’s decision to limit what it tells Congress — and by extension the American people — approximately election threats will allow the propaganda to spread.
“Race used to be a big piece of what they did in 2016, and provided heightened racial tensions this year, there’s no reason they wouldn’t be doing the same object again,” says Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He says the information that is now being limited “belongs to the American people.”
Democrats were livid final weekend after Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, a near Trump ally, informed Congress that the office would provide written information to the intelligence committees approximately election threats but would no longer be doing in-person briefings, denying lawmakers the chance to ask questions.
The cancellation came a couple of weeks after US intelligence officials publicly stated that Russia is the usage of quite a few measures to denigrate Trump’s opponent, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, ahead of the election. Trump responded to that assessment by saying that “nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have.”
Election interference has all the time been a touchy subject for Trump. The president has frequently dismissed the concept Russia interfered at all in 2016, and has replaced many long-serving intelligence officials with his own appointees.
The intelligence observation did not offer specifics approximately what tactics Russia is the usage of, but the past provides important clues.
In 2016 the Internet Research Agency had an “overwhelming operational emphasis on race” that used to be obvious in the online ads it purchased — more than two-thirds contained a term related to race. The company targeted that satisfied to “African-Americans in key metropolitan areas with well-established black communities and flashpoints in the Black Lives Matter movement,” according to a Senate Intelligence Committee outline. One of its top performing pages, “Blactivist,” generated 11.2 million engagements with Facebook users.
Bret Schafer, an expert on foreign disinformation with the bipartisan group Alliance for Securing Democracy, said stoking racial animosity is a Kremlin strategy that goes back decades. His group tracked a major uptick in social media activity on racial issues from Russian state-sponsored media and political figures this summer, particularly after the killing of George Floyd by the hands of Minneapolis police.
“We have seen a fixed messaging theme being race and racism in america,” Schafer said. “They’re very good at it.”
There is evidence that the recent police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the resulting protests — the focal point of political sparring between Trump and Biden this week — have fueled a new round of social media activity from foreign governments.
English-language media outlets linked to the Russian government have published stories supporting the protests, and “Cop Injustice in Kenosha” is the headline on a video posted by an online news association with ties to Russia. Another video from the Kremlin-backed outlet Redfish shows Trump supporters driving aggressively through protesters in Portland, Oregon, where there have been protests for weeks.
The stories are exactly the type of satisfied lawmakers are trying to retain tabs on.
The acting chairman of the Senate committee, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told a native news outlet this past week that has spoken to Ratcliffe and expects the in-person briefings to continue. But it is unclear if they’ll. A spokeswoman for Ratcliffe would not confirm Rubio’s remarks.
The committee’s top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, says he has been working with Rubio to urge Ratcliffe to reverse the decision.
“Ninety percent of the information I’ve ever gained from any briefing isn’t from the briefing, it’s from the questions,” Warner said.
The briefings are less likely to be reinstated in the House intelligence committee, which is led by Democrats. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said cancelling the briefings is a “shocking abdication of its lawful responsibility.” He has urged vigilance on the Russian meddling, noting that the tactics have evolved but “the underlying malign goals remain the same.”
The intelligence committees are receiving some information from the social media companies themselves, notably Facebook and Twitter. The companies were slow to reply in 2016, but are now waging sophisticated efforts to root out foreign interference. Twitter stopped accepting political ads, while Facebook began verifying the identity of ad buyers in 2018 and this week said it is going to restrict new political ads in the 7 days before the election.
Nina Jankowicz, disinformation fellow at the nonpartisan Wilson Center, says there was an improvement in tracking, but because the issue of interference has been so politicized, Congress and the public aren’t getting enough information.
“What people wish to be in search of is stuff that is seemingly trying to receive a rise out of them,” Jankowicz said. “Don’t think you’ll find a troll. It’s approximately guarding yourself from emotional manipulation.”