On May 21, 2016, two groups with passionate opposing views on Islamic influence in the U.S. found themselves attending rallies at the same spot and at the same time in Houston, Texas.
As you might expect trouble ensued, but it stopped short of rioting and bloodshed. That was not the intent of the organizers of the two rallies who were hoping for much more. In fact, the Russian provocateurs behind the events were hoping for open conflict.
Earlier that month, one of the groups, called Heart of Texas began a campaign to stop the spread of Islam in Texas. Another group called Muslims of America said it was spreading knowledge of Islam.
In reality, both groups were the invention of Russian social media experts at the Internet Research Agency and they were intentionally set against each other. The ads backing those groups were a central exhibit in Nov. 1 meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
The IRA, as it’s come to be known, was behind other groups seeking to drive wedges between various ethnic and political interest groups in American society and if possible provoke open conflict among them.
There was a group called BlackMatters that was set up in opposition to another called Back the Badge. There were groups working to pit veterans organizations against backers of candidate Hillary Clinton, groups backing the Second Amendment of the US Constitution set against others backing gun control. There was even one called the Army of Jesus.
The ads and posts by the groups that created these fake entities were designed specifically to create dissension. They did this by spreading fake news, encouraging heated conflicts on social media, while at the same time gathering “Likes” and making use of bots to extend their apparent reach.
The attempts to cause conflict even included an active role exploiting the controversy generated by the decision of some National Football League players not to stand for the National Anthem.
These revelations were examples presented to the Senate hearing, as well as another set presented to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which released images of a number of the ads paid for by the Russians at the IRA. Notably, the House images also included the metadata which reveals the financial and targeting information for the ads. You’ll note that the ads were paid for in Rubles.
The testimony revealed that the paid ads were only a small part of the Russian efforts to affect social media in the U.S. For the most part the ads were intended to get the attention of people who might share the sentiments expressed in the ad and then draw them into discussions on social media that were intended to focus their opinions. The overall result was intended to cause fractures in U.S. brought on by feelings stemming from social media.
In his opening statement committee Chairman Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) stressed the importance of the hearing. “Agents of a hostile foreign power reached into the United States using these platforms. They intend to tear us apart using social media platforms Americans invented.”
Committee Vice Chairman Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) agreed, stressing the divisive role of the Russian activities.
“Russian operatives are attempting to hijack the conversation and make Americans angry,” Warner said. “They did it during the 2016 presidential campaign and they’re doing it now.” Warner said that so far, nobody has done enough to stop it. “This is not new. Russians have been conducting information warfare campaigns for decades.”
Warner said that the actual political ads placed by Russian operatives, while serious, were relatively minor compared to the efforts to place divisive ads based around issues. He said that his investigators have found an additional 120,000 posts on Instagram that were placed by the IRA, and that up to 15 percent of Twitter accounts were either fake or the work of bots used to build traffic.
“Paid ads on Facebook are just the tip of the story,” Warner, who was clearly annoyed by what he saw as a lack of progress on the part of the social media. He said that the committee has been blown off by the leaders.
Warner also noted that also bothers him that the social media companies didn’t do anything until the committee really went after them. “Your initial presentations were not sufficient.”
Warner then asked Facebook representatives whether the company had looked for any evidence that the same Russians that were attacking during the U.S. election were also involved with the tampering of the French election. Facebook’s vice president and general counsel Colin Stretch, who was also at the Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, was unable to answer the question.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said that she doesn’t think the social media industry really gets it. “What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber-warfare,” Feinstein said. “The Russians are attempting to sow conflict and discontent about this country.”
Feinstein then referred to Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing which she also attended. “Yesterday I asked specific questions and got vague answers,” she said. “You bear this responsibility. You created these platforms.”
“You have to do something or we will,” Feinstein said, referring to legislation that the committee was considering that would give the federal government the power to regulate internet advertising.
Besides asking the lawyers who attended the hearing hard questions about the practices of their companies, several senators expressed concern that there was no one present at the hearings who was in a position to take action. “Where are your CEOs?” the senators asked, repeatedly. None of the corporate legal counselors at the hearings were able to answer that question, either.