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Sessions, experts say U.S. still unprepared for Russian interference in future elections

Attorney General Jeff Sessions tells Sen. Ben Sassee the U.S. is "probably not" doing enough to prevent Russian election interference at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Oct. 18, 2017. (CNN Newsource)

Reports that members of President Donald Trump’s campaign shared content from a Twitter account linked to the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election have left experts disturbed by Russia’s apparent success in embedding itself in U.S. political discourse at the highest levels and concerned about what that means for future elections.

According to the Daily Beast, several senior Trump campaign officials and allies retweeted posts from @Ten_GOP, which claimed to be the “unofficial” account of the Tennessee Republican Party.

Instead, the account reportedly originated from the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked “troll farm” believed to be responsible for much of Russia’s election propaganda campaign.

Then-Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway retweeted the account two days before the election, suggesting opponent Hillary Clinton should be in prison.

“Mother of jailed sailor: ‘Hold Hillary to same standards as my son on Classified info’ #hillarysemail #WeinerGate” it said.

The account had extraordinary reach, particularly when compared with the actual Tennessee Republican Party, which spent months fruitlessly urging Twitter to suspend it. By the time it was shut down, it had 136,000 followers, about ten times as many as the real @TNGOP account.

President Trump’s son retweeted the account three times, including once on Election Day. He also shared a dubious allegation of voter fraud in Florida a week before the election.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn retweeted @Ten_GOP once, and his son retweeted it 34 times, according to the Daily Beast.

“The fact that Russian trolls were able not just to mimic but to spoon-feed the Trump campaign their fake messages testifies to their deep understanding of the campaign's messaging strategy,” said Michael Carpenter, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

In August 2017, the account tweeted a photo of the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 victory parade and claimed it was the crowd outside Trump’s rally in Phoenix.

According to John Cohen, former acting undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the Department of Homeland Security, the revelations about @Ten_GOP suggest the Russian influence operation is more sophisticated than initially believed. Their account operators figured out what to post and how to get presidential campaign officials to amplify their message.

“What this really illustrated is to protect this country we have to better understand how criminals, terrorists, foreign intelligence services are turning to social media and internet-based communication platforms to engage in illicit activities, and we can no longer think about these problems in the traditional way,” said Cohen, now a professor at Rutgers University.

Recent media reports have revealed how extensive Russian efforts to meddle in U.S. society have become, including an apparent attempt to weaponize Pokémon Go.

Experts warn these efforts did not cease after Election Day. According to Facebook, less than half of the 10 million Americans believed to have seen Russian ads on the site viewed them before the election.

Attempts to stoke racial tensions have reportedly gone as far as paying trainers to hold self-defense classes for African-Americans earlier this year. Russia-linked fake accounts also promoted Black Lives Matter messaging, which CNN reported may have been intended to encourage black Americans to protest and to make others view their activism as a threat.

“One part of the Russian plot is that they look at social media behavior within the community they want to target,” Cohen said.

Operatives study legitimate posts, analyze the areas where they want to influence voters, and then they target their content to influencers in that community in the hope they will share it, as happened repeatedly with the @Ten_GOP account.

Russians may have used similar tactics to infiltrate online communities of military personnel and veterans. Cohen cited research showing “significant and persistent interactions” in April 2017 between military personnel Twitter accounts and a network of Russia-focused and conspiracy theory accounts.

“These interactions are often mediated by pro-Trump users and accounts that identify with far-right political movements in the U.S.,” wrote researchers from the Project on Computational Propaganda.

In all of these cases, Cohen said the goals were similar, “influencing our election, undermining confidence in government, and exacerbating tensions that were already existing in our country on important social issues.”

People who have worked at these “troll farms” recently told a Russian media outlet that their content often aligned with Donald Trump’s message, but it was more about linking Clinton to the "ruling party" and defeating her.

“The Kremlin's overarching aims are to divide Western societies internally by stoking discord and sowing chaos, discredit NATO and the EU, and delegitimize the liberal international order,” Carpenter said.

Glenn Carle, a former CIA agent and author of “The Interrogator: An Education,” said the latest reports provide “red-handed evidence” that Russia is engaged in “a multi-layer, sophisticated, sustained effort” to alter the opinions of American citizens and policymakers.

“Even if Trump did not exist, they would be doing things like this and have been doing things like this because they can foster discord in the American system and distrust for the American system,” he said.

This type of disinformation and propaganda campaign has been “the bread and butter” of Russian and Soviet intelligence operations for decades, according to Cohen. What is new is utilizing pretty much every social media service available—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr and more—to spread the message.

“Other intelligence services conduct intel and propaganda campaigns, and its very likely that they are leveraging social media and other internet-based platforms as well,” he said.

Carpenter also suggested other adversaries are closely watching Russia’s machinations play out and noting the relatively muted U.S. response.

“The Russian government has turned information warfare into an art unlike any other nation-state,” he said. “But China, Iran, North Korea and other states are watching and learning and will soon be replicating Russia's tactics, particularly if they perceive these operations as having achieved their goals at little cost.”

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., raised alarm about the extent of Russia’s ambitions at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.

“Anybody who reads intelligence knows that we face a sophisticated long-term effort by a foreign adversary to undermine our foreign policy and our ability to lead in the world by trying to undermine confidence in American institutions,” he said.

Speaking to Attorney General Jeff Session, Sasse emphasized the danger these tactics pose.

“We live at a time when info ops and propaganda and misinformation are a far more cost-effective way for people to try to weaken the United States of America than by thinking they can outspend us at a military level,” he said.

Asked by Sasse whether the government is fully prepared to protect the 2018 and 2020 election from inevitable attempts to interfere again, Sessions responded bluntly, “Probably not. We’re not.”

That is Cohen’s fear, and he is not confident the Trump administration is taking that threat seriously enough.

“The sad thing is that the administration, for the most part, has seemed unwilling to acknowledge that this effort by the Russians has taken place and continues,” he said.

Despite the evidence of the scale and depth of the Russian operation, President Trump continues to publicly dismiss any discussion of it as a “hoax” intended to invalidate his victory. Other administration officials have also attempted to downplay it.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo claimed incorrectly Thursday that the intelligence community concluded Russia did not affect the outcome of the election. The CIA issued a statement afterward contradicting him and confirming that the intelligence community did not assess the political process or public opinion.

“The first thing we need to do is we need to get beyond the polarized nature of the public debate on this issue,” Cohen said.

The politicized rhetoric and reflexive responses on both sides obscure the goal of addressing what he views as America’s biggest national security priority.

“It’s imperative that we learn from what they were able to do and put in place the right measures to counteract it in the future,” he said.

Cohen warned that social media companies cannot be counted on to police this content themselves, as the 2016 campaign clearly demonstrated. Instead, the public needs to be educated about how to identify and combat it.

“We can’t just sit here passively and hope it will go away,” he said.

Carle said some kind of regulation of social media is needed, much like limits are placed on particularly incendiary speech in the real world.

“You and I cannot shout fire in a crowded room. You cannot own a piece of artillery and fire it at your neighbors,” he said.

Carpenter suggested looking to Finland and the Baltic states, societies that have largely inoculated themselves from Kremlin disinformation.

“This is because the media in these countries are very proficient at quickly exposing Russian propaganda for what it is, and societies have become accustomed to questioning sources and looking for possible Russian spin,” he said. “In short, the more Russian propaganda is exposed, the less effective it becomes.”

To similarly vaccinate the American electorate against Russian meddling, people must learn to ensure that information they rely on to make decisions and form opinions is accurate and comes from a trustworthy source.

“At the end of the day, the best way you can counteract this campaign is for people to be skeptical about what they see on social media,” Cohen said.

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