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Senate investigators want answers from Reddit and Tumblr on Russia meddling

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.).  (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Congressional investigators probing Russian interference around the 2016 U.S. presidential election plan to question Reddit and Tumblr over new reports that the Kremlin may have helped spread disinformation on their sites, as lawmakers continue to explore the ways in which Russia weaponized social media.

Staffers for lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a briefing with Tumblr soon, and they’re seeking more information from Reddit after it acknowledged Monday it shuttered hundreds of suspicious accounts in 2015 and 2016, according to a person close to the panel who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Triggering the Senate’s new interest is a trove of documents first reported by the Daily Beast last week. It found at least 21 accounts on Tumblr had ties to the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin troll farm that was the focus of an indictment last month by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Meanwhile, the research agency’s content flourished on Reddit topic pages, called subreddits, related to then-candidate Donald Trump and Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton.

On Monday, Reddit offered additional detail: The company’s chief executive, Steve Huffman, revealed in a post on the site that his team had “found and removed a few hundred accounts.” He added that the “vast majority of suspicious accounts we have found in the past months were banned back in 2015-2016 through our enhanced efforts to prevent abuse of the site generally.”

Yet Huffman also acknowledged that Reddit more broadly suffered from “indirect propaganda” that was posted and shared by thousands of users who are “mostly American, and appear to be unwittingly promoting Russian propaganda.” That includes tweets from well-documented, since-shuttered Internet Research Agency accounts, like @TEN_GOP, which claimed to speak for Tennessee Republicans.

Spokeswomen for Reddit and for Tumblr’s parent company, Oath, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr (R-N.C.), did not immediately respond on Monday. But the panel's top Democrat, Sen. Mark R. Warner of Virginia, said the latest reports highlight the need for other tech companies to study their own platforms for potential misuse.

“We have continually seen that the IRA’s sophisticated and extensive use of social media — not only Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, but also other platforms — shows a keen understanding of the power of social media in shaping public discourse,” he said in a statement. “I would encourage all of the social media companies to take a much closer look at how their platforms and services could be used to manipulate their users’ trust and attention.”

Reddit and Tumblr are the latest tech giants to field questions from congressional investigators. Last year, House and Senate lawmakers set their sights on Facebook, Google and Twitter, grilling the companies’ executives at a trio of hearings in the fall.

Over the course of the 2016 election, more than 146 million U.S. users on Facebook and its photo-sharing platform, Instagram, may have viewed content posted by the Internet Research Agency, Facebook revealed at the time. Twitter has said at least 1.4 million interacted with similar disinformation, too. And Google flagged that more than 300,000 visitors to YouTube appeared to have viewed propaganda videos.

In many cases, these posts, ads and other content touched on racial, religious or other hot-button social and political issues, with an apparent aim of driving contentious debate and sowing unrest — both online and off.

Warner, for one, expressed reservations with Reddit back in September 2017, fearing it may have helped amplify Russian propaganda online. Privately, staffers for the lawmaker soon questioned the company about the matter, the person close to the panel said.

Meanwhile, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), urged Reddit and similar, major online platforms on Monday to make more data available about the potential extent of Russia’s efforts online.

“We hope and expect Reddit, Tumblr and other companies to thoroughly research both paid advertising and organic content that can be traced to Russia’s disinformation campaign, and to provide that information to the committee,” Schiff said in a statement. “I have repeatedly urged the social media companies to share data among themselves and prepare a joint report for the committee on how these platforms were used interchangeably to reinforce the Russian messages, and I continue to hope that they will do so.”

Otherwise, Russia is not Reddit’s only recent trouble. The site, which allows its users to post under cover of anonymity, has fielded criticism for enabling everything from white supremacist content to fake videos of celebrities having sex — and most recently, it served as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories about the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.