I discovered new passions while interning on Capitol Hill this past summer: business casual, C-SPAN, and, of course, politics. When I came home to find a copy of the 448-page Mueller Report on the living room table, I began reading, knowing it would be a huge flex on all my political colleagues. I was willing to invest the time, no matter how boring, and I have been shocked by its findings. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to read the full report, I will summarize the most intriguing details.
The Mueller Report examines “Donald Trump, his presidential campaign, and Russian interference in the 2016 election.” Volume 1 of the report focuses on successful Russian election interference and cyber crime that favored the Trump campaign. I think that most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, would be concerned at the success of the intrusions and the threats it poses to our democracy.
As early as 2014, the Internet Research Agency (IRA) formed in Russia. Funded by a Russian oligarch with alleged ties to Vladimir Putin, the IRA began a social media campaign to “provoke and amplify political discord” in the U.S. On Facebook, they created fake profiles posing as ordinary U.S. citizens. They made pages that pretended to be affiliates of popular social movements or related to popular issues, like “Stop All Immigrants,” “LGBT United,” “Blacktivist,” etc. The IRA bought over 3,500 Facebook ads to promote the fake groups. Fictitious Facebook profiles messaged pro-Trump groups with the intention of planning pro-Trump rallies. “Dozens” of rallies organized by the IRA occurred, with attendance ranging from “few” to “hundreds” of attendees. According to Facebook, some of the fake IRA Facebook groups had hundreds of thousands of members, and IRA posts reached the news feeds of 29 million U.S. citizens.
Twitter was another playground for Russian misinformation. The IRA created 3,814 fake accounts to create content, with bot accounts to bolster said tweets. Major U.S. media networks and political figures (Donald Trump Jr., Sean Hannity, etc.) retweeted or responded to tweets from these Russian-controlled accounts. Just within the ten weeks before the 2016 election, 1.4 million Twitter users interacted with IRA content. Furthermore, the IRA successfully recruited normal Americans to promote their content through private messaging.
In addition to misinformation, a Russian government group, nicknamed the GRU, hacked the Democratic National Convention (DNC) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). They stole nearly 70 gigabytes of documents pertaining to the 2016 election including opposition research about Trump and other documents from the Clinton campaign, releasing these documents on Wikileaks and other sites to offset candidate Trump’s bad press.
This is just a brief summary of all the actions Russians took to interfere with our election. While Russian groups did not change votes of unknowing citizens by hacking our voting system, a study funded by the Defense Department found that “upticks” in Trump’s polling were correlated with “social media activity by Russian trolls and bots.1” Additionally, every 25,000 retweets from IRA-controlled accounts “predicted a 1 percent bump in Trump’s polling.2” When asked about Russian interference in future elections, Robert Mueller testified that the Russians “are doing it as we sit here.3”
Luckily, individuals can do their part to stop the spread of misinformation by considering the source before retweeting or liking content. Major news sources like the Washington Post or New York Times have incentive to post accurate information and hire people to fact check4, so their reporting should be more trustworthy. Many fake IRA pages were tied to real social issues, so before sharing, check the origins of the group and make sure it’s legitimate. Also, it might be wise to ignore messages from strangers asking you to promote political content or plan political rallies.
Politicians are seeking solutions to stop Russian interference on a federal level. Ideas include requiring social media sites to compile public databases with information on who is paying for election ads. This program is part of Canada’s detailed and aggressive anti-interference campaign5. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Russia in response to cyber attacks, but there’s no evidence that the sanctions are working. So far, several bills aimed at curbing interference and promoting transparency in the election process have been passed by the House, but were shot down by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, spawning the nickname Moscow Mitch6.
So, the chances of any substantial countermeasures appear slim. That leaves a burden upon us, social media users, to try and stop further Russian misinformation. Besides that, we can sit back, relax, and watch the tea kettle boil as 2020 creeps around the corner.
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