Ryan, Rubio may have been targets of damaging Russian social-media campaigns
By KAROUN DEMIRJIAN | The Washington Post | Published: March 30, 2017
WASHINGTON — Two high-profile Republican members of Congress may have been targets of Russian social-media campaigns to discredit them as recently as this past week, an expert in Kremlin influence-peddling told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday.
"This past week we observed social-media accounts discrediting U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan," Clint Watts told the committee in a rare open hearing with cybersecurity, intelligence and Russian-history experts that leaders billed as a "primer" on Russian influence-peddling.
Watts, an expert in terrorism forecasting and Russian influence operations from the Foreign Policy Research Institute, also said that in his opinion, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., "anecdotally suffered" from Russian social-media campaigns against him during his presidential bid.
The revelations widen the scope of politicians who have become the subject of Russian smear campaigns carried out on social media, a central part of the Kremlin's alleged strategy of spreading propaganda in the United States and undermining its democratic institutions.
While Watts and the other witnesses are not involved in ongoing probes of Russia's alleged efforts to swing the election toward Donald Trump and possible links between the Kremlin and the presidential campaigns, they argued that such meddling is only one example of what Russia plans to do with the arsenal of hacking and influence tools it has been building for years.
"Russians could not do this if they started in 2016," said Roy Godson, an expert in Soviet and Russian "active measures" - tools of political warfare used to influence world events - and an emeritus professor of government at Georgetown University. "For many, many decades we did not take this stuff very seriously, and they were able to take enormous advantage."
Watts stressed that Russia had no political allies in the United States and would attack or discredit "people on both sides of the aisle . . . solely based on what they want to achieve in their own landscape, whatever the Russian foreign policy objectives are. They win because they play both sides."
But Watts noted that President Trump's actions in particular - such as calling attention to conspiracy theories and tweeting about them - are helping Russian propaganda efforts succeed in the United States.
"Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander in chief has used Russian active measure at times against his opponents," Watts said, citing the president's history of making unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud, former president Barack Obama's birthplace, and a "rigged" election.
At peak times, Watts said, such fake accounts even swarm-tweeted conspiracy theories at the president, in the hopes that he would cite them, lending them credibility and strengthening Russia's ability to sow more discord in the United States.
"Until we get a firm basis on fact and fiction in our own country . . . whether it be do I support the intelligence community or a story I read on my Twitter feed, we're going to have a big problem," Watts said.
The testimony came a day after the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee - Sens. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va. - stood side by side in a rare press briefing to offer an update on the status of their investigation.
They did so at a time when the House Intelligence Committee, also pursuing an investigation of Russian involvement in the election, has effectively ground to halt with Democratic members accusing the Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., of undermining the investigation by working on Trump's behalf.
The different approaches being taken by the two committees is drawing notice on both sides of the Capitol. On Wednesday, a Republican congressman, Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., said the Senate should take the lead on the Russia investigation.
On Thursday, the witnesses painted a timeline of Russia's "active measures" that dates back at least to 2009, when Russian-owned fake social media accounts began to pop up online. Those accounts - meant to look like they belong to Americans, pictures and all - amount to an easily-deployable influence army that has been critical to spreading Russian propaganda, the witnesses argued.
In 2014, they began to work on those "influence campaigns" more intently, and by 2015, had "tied hacking and influence together at the same time," Watts said, specifically referring to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, and the later release of that information publicly.
It was a "one-year build up to the election," Watts said.
Experts also warned that Russia, now that it has successfully deployed an Internet army, would likely look for future political targets and exploit new technologies to sow more discord in the American electoral process and more distrust among citizens of the country's democratic institutions.
"Somewhere in their cache right now there's tremendous amounts of information laying around they can weaponize against other Americans," Watts warned.
The panel of experts recommended several ways to counter Russian propaganda and online smear campaigns, including changing the way cybersecurity experts are hired to bring more skilled people into the government, and getting the Department of State and Homeland Security to play a more active role in discrediting fake news and other false rumors and reports.
"The quicker they're refuted, the faster they die on social media," Watts said.
One technology that experts warned about in particular is virtual reality - simulated worlds in which people can interact with through a headset or helmet with people and places that seem real but aren't. The format is becoming increasingly popular for marketing products, in gaming and even in the presentation of news. But it's a ripe target for Russia to exercise more influence, experts warn, because in virtual reality, nothing has to be the way it is in the real world outside.
"Anybody who could set up the reality is going to have a very decided advantage in politics and other areas," Godson said. For example, in a virtual reality environment, someone could present a politician in a negative light - r present themselves as a politician espousing Russian-influenced views or in a compromising virtual situation - and hope to influence the views of people experiencing that virtual world.
"The ability to impersonate [someone] online is the next phase that we will go through," Burr concurred, "and I think it's fair to say we don't have our best and brightest focused on that yet."
The experts also encouraged investigators to follow the trail of Russian money, through oligarchs, and "follow the trail of dead Russians," Watts said, referring to a string of prominent Russians who have recently died or been killed, to find clues about how Russian money is laundered.
Watts also warned that the intelligence community had to change their way of thinking, and focus on what is going on in public arenas like social media as much as they do on closed secure transactions, since the spread of propaganda is such a critical part of Russia's campaign.
"Most of this influence came online. They essentially duplicated an old active measure system without setting foot in the United States," Watts said. "When it comes to open source, we miss what's right in front of our nose."
Burr said his committee is dedicating seven staff members to the Russia investigation and is "within weeks" of completing a review of "thousands of pages" of documents provided by the intelligence community. Burr said his panel expects to request - and receive - more documents as the investigation continues.
Burr said he has not coordinated with the White House on the investigation and insisted that although he advised Trump during his campaign - and voted for him - he could conduct the probe objectively.
Most of the initial 20 interviews the committee will conduct, according to Warner, are with officials who put together a report released in January that stated Russia interfered in the 2016 elections with the purpose of trying to improve Trump's chances of winning. Burr said that five of those interviews have been set, and the remaining 15 will be scheduled in the next 10 days.
While Warner and Burr did not disclose additional people they hoped would testify before the committee, they hinted that list may include Michael Flynn, who resigned as national security adviser over the controversy surrounding his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and his failure to fully disclose those discussions to Vice President Pence.