The American public has heard so much about Russian activities–about interference with the 2016 election, about Russian “bots” that continue to infest Facebook and Twitter, and about Donald Trump’s longtime dependence on Russian money to finance his developments–that significant segments of the population have simply tuned it out. It’s last week’s story–and as a nation, we have a very short attention span.
That’s unfortunate, because Russia is winning Putin’s war on our democracy without having to fire a shot.
Roll Call recently had a headline that caught my attention.“The Most Important Document You May Ever Read.”
On the day that special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on election interference came out, cable news anchors strained to race through its 448 pages and describe the findings, all in the same breath. Computer sleuths hacked the document’s setting to let users search for “Trump,” “president,” “collusion” and “Russia.” Talking-head lawyers feverishly opined that Volume I contained less incriminating information than Volume II.
But around the country, voters mostly gave an “Is that all there is?” shoulder shrug and went back to their corners. Many members of Congress admitted they didn’t even bother to read it.
Nearly six months later, and to almost no fanfare last week while Congress was in recess, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the second of two installments of its own bipartisan investigation into roughly the same topic. The slim, 85-page report reads like a Russian spy novel crossed with a sequel to Orwell’s most dystopian version of the future — right down to an interview with a paid Russian troll who said his experience in 2016, pitting American voters against each other with social media platforms of their own making, was like being “a character in the book ‘1984’ by George Orwell — a place where you have to write that white is black and black is white.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee is chaired by Republican Richard Burr; Mark Warner, a Democrat, is Vice-Chair, and the investigation that led to the report is as bipartisan as you are likely to get in today’s Senate.
The report–available here-– doesn’t mince words. First, it confirms that the Russians deliberately attacked the American electorate in 2016 with an active campaign intended to benefit Donald Trump and destroy Hillary Clinton. One of the former trolls told the committee that, on the morning following the election, exhausted hackers in St. Petersburg, Russia, uncorked champagne, looked at each other and uttered “almost in unison: ‘We made America great.’”
The tactics and strategies that the Kremlin directed included every major social media platform you can think of — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — and a few you’d never suspect, including Pinterest, LinkedIn and 4Chan. The hashtags alone tell the story— #MAGA #TrumpTrain #Hillary4Prison #ZombieHillary #SickHillary. Along with anti-Clinton stories, they also pushed out messages against Trump’s primary rivals like Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Once in the general election, they pumped up third-party candidates to siphon support away from Clinton with posts including, “A vote for Jill Stein is not a wasted vote.”
Online trolls were based in St. Petersburg and were given daily quotas for targeting Americans online, including 50 Facebook posts per day. They were even given a list of American holidays, to remind them of times to post less, so as to avoid detection from online providers.
Americans gobbled it up. The Senate Intelligence report details a troubling fact: in the three months leading up to Election Day, Russian-planted false information on Facebook outperformed real news.
Russian messages were crafted to erode Americans’ trust in investigative and political journalism, and to exploit racial divisions. The sheer volume was so enormous that it overwhelmed readers, who could no longer separate what was real from what wasn’t.
As the article in Roll Call concluded: “If you read nothing else now that Congress is back in session, take a moment to digest this report. It may be the most important document you ever read.”