Two years after Russia interfered in the American presidential campaign, the nation has done little to protect itself against a renewed effort to influence voters in the coming congressional midterm elections, according to lawmakers and independent analysts.
Despite Facebook’s revelation this week that it had closed down 32 phony pages and profiles that were part of a coordinated campaign, technology companies in general have struggled to curb the flow of disinformation and hacking and have received little guidance from the U.S. government on how to do so.
“Twenty-one months after the 2016 election, and only three months before the 2018 elections, Russian-backed operatives continue to infiltrate and manipulate social media to hijack the national conversation and set Americans against each other,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) said Wednesday at a hearing of Senate Intelligence Committee, of which he is vice chairman. “They were doing it in 2016; they are still doing it today.”
Experts say the lack of forceful administration leadership on the issue — with President Trump at times questioning the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community about Russia’s disinformation and hacking campaign — renders less effective the efforts of agencies to mount a coordinated government action.
“If you can’t talk about Russia around the president, I don’t see how you get out in front of this, given that they’re the ones doing most of the foreign influence,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and disinformation expert for the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Administration officials dispute such criticism. The U.S. intelligence community for months has been meeting on the issue, including with National Security Council staff members, they said. But complicating their efforts, they argue, is the fact that the battleground is in the private sector — an area that is traditionally off-limits to intelligence agencies.
“National Security Council staff leads the regular and continuous coordination of the whole-of-government approach to addressing foreign malign influence and ensuring election security,” National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a statement. “The President has made it clear that his Administration will not tolerate foreign interference in our electoral process from any nation state or other malicious actors.”
With the midterm elections looming, U.S. officials say the overall Russian effort is serious and has many elements that resemble what happened in 2016. These include efforts to hack into the emails of politicians and creating fake social media account to exploit racial, social, cultural and religious divisions in society.
“This issue goes far beyond elections,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said at the hearing Wednesday. “We’re fighting for the integrity of our society. And we need to enlist every single person.”
The Obama and Trump administrations imposed sanctions on Russians in an effort to deter future influence campaigns and cyberattacks, but those actions appear to have had little effect.
U.S. officials have expressed the most worry about foreign disinformation, a point echoed by analysts who warned the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday about Russia’s determination to again seek to influence American voters through social media.
Facebook has announced plans to increase transparency and beef up its security and content-review teams. Twitter is suspending suspicious accounts more than twice as quickly as before, at a rate of roughly 1 million a day.
Yet several experts said the technology companies need to do more.
“We’re in the midst of an arms race in which responsibility for the integrity of public discourse is largely in the hands of private social platforms, and determined adversaries continually find new ways to manipulate features and circumvent security measures,” Renée DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge and an expert on social media manipulation campaigns, said during the Senate hearing.
John W. Kelly, chief executive of Graphika, a marketing analytics firm based in New York, said ongoing Russian attacks exploit the highly partisan nature of political debate online, in which automated accounts called bots amplify messages on Twitter and other platforms. Bots on the far left and right of the political spectrum produce 25 to 30 times more messages per day than authentic mainstream accounts, Kelly said Graphika has found in its research.
“The extremes are screaming while the majority whispers,” Kelly said at the Senate hearing.
Russia has been particularly skilled at exploiting the seams among U.S. authorities, laws and values. Responding to the Russian disinformation campaign does not fall squarely in the province of any single U.S. agency, and they generally do not have visibility into the information that flows across social media platforms.
American respect for the free exchange of ideas, as enshrined in the First Amendment, has made it easier for outsiders to infiltrate national political conversations, especially in the online world, where it is simple to obscure identities and locations.
Russian operatives who paid for Facebook ads in 2016 using rubles, for example, have become more careful about leaving such telltale clues for investigators, experts say. Several major social media platforms allow users to operate under pseudonyms, making it harder for others to detect manipulations — especially from sophisticated foreign government operatives.
“What the Russians are doing is called information war. What the Americans are doing is called free speech. And you can’t square those circles very well,” said Steven Livingston, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University who did not testify at the hearing.
Facebook on Monday disclosed that it had closed 32 accounts and pages — possibly from Russia’s Internet Research Agency — used in a sophisticated campaign to spread divisive messaging ahead of the midterm elections. And several candidates running in the November elections have been targeted by the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU. Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), one of the most vulnerable Democrats seeking reelection, said she was among those targeted.
Senior Trump administration officials have sought this week to signal a more aggressive response to Russian interference. On Tuesday, at a cybersecurity conference in New York, Vice President Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in separate speeches warned Russia not to try again this year.
“The United States will not tolerate any foreign interference in our elections from any nation-state — not from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or anyone else,” Pence said.
Nielsen said: “Let me be clear. Our intelligence community had it right. It was the Russians. They know that. We know that. And we cannot let it happen again.”
The president has not issued similarly tough admonitions. In a news conference in Helsinki at which he stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Trump seemed to question the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election. In subsequent remarks, he both said he agreed with the assessment and again cast doubt on it.
Experts said that to deter Russia, the U.S. government message must be explicit and unwavering.
“It’s incredibly important, number one, that on the credibility front, we have very clear, consistent messages from across the government, starting with our leadership and all the way down . . . including the White House — that this behavior will not be tolerated and that there will be consequences for it going forward, and articulating what those consequences will be,” Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said at the Senate hearing.
On Friday, Trump convened a National Security Council meeting on Russian electoral interference. The session, which lasted less than an hour, resulted in no new directives from the president. Rather, Cabinet heads briefed Trump on their efforts to date to tackle the problem of election security and foreign influence.
Despite the president’s apparent lack of public urgency about confronting the Russian threat, agency heads are said to be doing what they can within their authorities.
The Department of Homeland Security has formed an election security task force and a foreign influence task force. The election security body is helping state and local election boards shore up their infrastructure, test their systems and coordinate information-sharing between the states and the federal government.
The FBI last fall created a foreign influence task force, which works closely with DHS, and it has sought to be more helpful to the social media firms. The FBI was criticized by Silicon Valley for failing to share threat information with the companies in the run-up to the 2016 election. In an effort to change that dynamic, Facebook in May convened a meeting with the major tech companies as well as the members of the FBI and DHS foreign influence task forces. The meeting helped to open lines of communication, some participants said.
Separately, National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone has created a Russia task force of personnel from the NSA and the military’s U.S. Cyber Command to collaborate in detecting and countering potential Russian interference in the midterm elections.
The Justice Department last month also announced a policy to alert the public to foreign hacking and disinformation operations targeting U.S. democracy, such as the effort Russia undertook in 2016.
Tony Romm and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.