Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Switch

Congressional Democrats call on Facebook, Twitter to urgently investigate and combat Russian bots and trolls

By Craig Timberg, Elizabeth Dwoskin

January 23, 2018 at 2:08 PM

(Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

Top congressional Democrats on Tuesday called on Facebook and Twitter to urgently examine the role of Russian bots and trolls in the growing online campaign to release a classified memo about allegations that the FBI mishandled a classified surveillance request as it probed Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign.

Hashtags such as "#ReleaseTheMemo” have been trending on Twitter in recent days, and accounts affiliated with Russian influence efforts have been supporting this effort, according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a U.S.-based group that examines efforts by Russia and other nations to interfere in democratic institutions. The hashtag has also been shared by Donald Trump Jr. and Rep. Steve King.

The letter to Facebook and Twitter calls for rapid study of these allegations and for the companies to shut down accounts that are involved. The authors are Rep. Adam B. Schiff and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, both California Democrats; Schiff is ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Feinstein is ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“If these reports are accurate, we are witnessing an ongoing attack by the Russian government through Kremlin-linked social media actors directly acting to intervene and influence our democratic process,” wrote Schiff and Feinstein. “This should be disconcerting to all Americans, but especially your companies as, once again, it appears the vast majority of their efforts are concentrated on your platforms. This latest example of Russian interference is in keeping with Moscow’s concerted, covert, and continuing campaign to manipulate American public opinion and erode trust in our law enforcement and intelligence institutions.”

Related: [Facebook thought it was more powerful than a nation-state. Then that became a liability]

The urgent request for investigation, with a report back due on Friday, underscores growing Capitol Hill scrutiny of the influence of social media on American politics, as well as growing concern over release of the classified GOP memo. The letter is addressed to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey.

Watch more!
Russian trolls and hackers targeted social media networks, political organizations and state election systems during the 2016 election. Here's what we know about the Kremlin's playbook for creating division in the U.S. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The Alliance for Democracy, part of the German Marshall Fund, created a dashboard that tracks roughly 600 accounts — including those of some bots and trolls — the group says echo or otherwise support Russian influence efforts, though in some cases this is done unwittingly, according to information posted on the site. It adds that many of the accounts are not directly controlled by the Russian government but play roles in amplifying key themes put forth by Russian government media. The dashboard, called “Hamilton 68: Tracking Russian Influence Operations on Twitter,” shows #ReleaseTheMemo as the most commonly used hashtag by tracked accounts over the past 48 hours.

Jonathon Morgan, founder of Data for Democracy, a nonprofit group that has been tracking the dashboard, said that his group found a surge of about 400 new Russian bot accounts that were created in January. Another set of accounts tweeting the hashtag was created in 2009.

“It was as if somebody flipped the switch — as if someone copied the same message, the same hashtag, and we were tweeting about the same events, all at the same time,” said Morgan. “The key takeaway is these accounts were created just in January. So the idea that Twitter is on top of its bot problem, well, I think they are failing.”

The congressional letter cites no evidence of Russian influence efforts on Facebook, but investigations of Russian manipulation of social media during the 2016 campaign found widespread exploitation of U.S.-based social media platforms. Researchers have a more difficult time tracking the flow of information on Facebook than Twitter, whose posts are more widely available to the public than on Facebook.

Related: [Russian content on Facebook, Google and Twitter reached far more users than companies first disclosed, congressional testimony says]

Facebook confirmed that it had received the letter but did not immediately make further comment. Twitter issued a statement saying the company “is committed to addressing malicious activity on our platform, and we take any assertions of such activity very seriously. We look forward to working closely with Senator Feinstein and Congressman Schiff to address their questions.”

The classified document that is the focus of the online #ReleaseTheMemo campaign reportedly details allegations that Trump and Republican allies have made about the FBI and the Justice Department, charging that they conducted improper surveillance of Trump's affiliates based on unproven allegations in a dossier produced by former British spy Christopher Steele.

The memo reportedly suggests that Steele lied to FBI agents who interviewed him during their probe of the 2016 election and that this purported lie was included in a successful application for a federal court order to conduct electronic surveillance on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The document was produced by the House Intelligence Committee’s GOP majority, which voted Thursday to make it available to the entire House membership, though not to the public. The panel’s Democrats all opposed the move.

Critics of the memo say it’s a clear effort to discredit the dossier, its author and the firm behind it. The letter from Schiff and Feinstein called it “a misleading talking points 'memo' authored by Republican staff that selectively references and distorts highly classified information.”

The letter also says, “It is critically important that the Special Counsel’s investigation be allowed to proceed without interference from inside or outside the United States. That is why we seek your assistance in our efforts to counter Russia’s continuing efforts to manipulate public opinion and undermine American democracy and the rule of law.”

The letter calls on Facebook and Twitter to make a report showing how many accounts are involved in Russian influence operations related to the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign, the frequency and volume of their posts and how many users have been exposed to these posts. It also calls on the companies to deactivate accounts if they violate the policies of Facebook and Twitter.

Tom Hamburger contributed to this report.


Craig Timberg is a national technology reporter for The Washington Post.

Elizabeth Dwoskin is The Washington Post's Silicon Valley correspondent

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