The activity of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) is just the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to Russia’s hacking and disinformation efforts, security and social media experts told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
“We’ve looked at a number of known disinformation campaigns, and we think the IRA folks are involved in a minority of them,” said John Kelly, founder and CEO of social media intelligence firm Graphika.
The GRU, Russia’s intelligence agency, is “probably better at hiding their tracks than the IRA is, and I think that [suggests] this is probably just one tip of the iceberg of what we’re looking at,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, who pointed to IRA efforts on Reddit and Tumblr, in addition to Facebook and Twitter.
“This is across the entire ecosystem [and] picked up and amplified across mainstream media outlets,” she said.
Kelly and Rosenberger were on hand for a hearing that examined how foreign influence operations use social media platforms. It comes ahead of Sept. 5 Senate Intel hearing where representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google are expected to appear, Sen. Mark Warner, ranking member, said today.
Senators quizzed the witnesses—who also included Dr. Todd Helmus, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, and Dr. Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute—on whether the US is doing enough to combat foreign hacking and influence efforts, which countries besides Russia might be targeting the US, and what the US should do to those found attacking us.
Dictators Learn From Each Other
Dr. Howard said his research has “found evidence of formally organized social media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries, up from 28 countries” in 2017.
Of note are the efforts of Turkey, China, Hungary, and Iran, but seven authoritarian regimes have budgets for misinformation campaigns, many of which are targeted at democracies like the US, UK, Canada, and Germany, according to Dr. Howard. “Dictators learn from each other,” he said.
After Russia, China has the “next best capacity” for hacking and misinformation campaigns, but has not yet “set American voters in their sites,” Dr. Howard said. China’s more focused on Taiwan and the Chinese diaspora.
Still, the threat of Russia is real, and action is needed “urgently,” Rosenberger told the committee. She argued that the US should follow the money. “Putin cares most about power and his power rests on his money,” so the US should be “looking at ways we can dry up sources of funding.”
That includes an examination of the Western financial system “used to hide the money [Putin’s regime has] stolen from the Russian people,” Rosenberger continued.
Tackling the problem, though, requires “consistent messages” from leadership “that this behavior will not be tolerated and that there will be consequences for it,” she said. The US cannot send Putin mixed messages.
When asked if any countries have been able to effectively combat Russian hackers, Rosenberger pointed to Germany and France. Kelly agreed, arguing the 2017 French election, which also featured the release of hacked emails, was the “perfect example” of awareness and quick action. As Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr noted, however, the French do things a little differently when it comes to elections, including a pre-vote media blackout, which wouldn’t fly in the US.
Ultimately, social media users need to pay attention. During the 2016 campaign, “there was a one-to-one ratio of junk news to professional news shared by voters over Twitter,” according to Dr. Howard’s research. “In other words, for every one link to a story produced by a professional news organization, there was one link to content that was extremist, sensationalist, conspiratorial, or [another] form of junk news.”
Bot detectors can find some types of content, but “it is an arm’s race as developers develop ways to detect [these] bots,” Dr. Helmus said. Until then, this issue will “require constant research and evaluation to develop and update new techniques.”