Russia’s 2016 Meddling on Facebook Just “the Tip of the Iceberg”

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Two top congressional Democrats said Facebook’s announcement it had discovered a Russian-funded campaign promoting divisive social and political messages demands a “very serious look” and likely is just “the tip of the iceberg.”

Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Mark Warner on Thursday called for the United States to broadly reassess how it approaches influence operations.

During back-to-back panels at the Intelligence & National Security Summit hosted by AFCEA International and the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, the two Democrats discussed key challenges that have emerged in the wake of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he has long had concerns about the way information is consumed, and that it had appeared to him the Russians were using social media sites to intervene in the 2016 election.

“The first reaction from Facebook was, well, you’re crazy. Nothing’s going on. But we find yesterday there actually was something,” he said, adding he believes that was just “the tip of the iceberg.”

Facebook said Wednesday that $100,000 was spent on about 3,000 ads over a two-year period from June 2015 to May of 2017, connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts. The social media company’s analysis of its ad buys suggested that these accounts “were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia,” Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos wrote, noting that the company has shared its findings with U.S. authorities investigating the matter.

According to a U.S. intelligence assessment on Russian hacking and efforts to meddle in the 2016 election, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a cyber and influence campaign aimed at interfering in the U.S. presidential election and boosting Donald Trump’s chances. Several House and Senate committees, including the respective intelligence panels Warner and Schiff sit on, are investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. The Justice Department’s special counsel investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller is also looking into the meddling as well as possible coordination with the Trump campaign.

Schiff, ranking member on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said one of the biggest threats the U.S. is facing are “information wars” with “very capable adversaries.”

“There is no software patch for what happened last year. There is no cyber defense capable enough,” Schiff told moderator Suzanne Kelly, CEO & Publisher of The Cipher Brief. If Russia, or any other government wishing to conduct operations, wants to get in to systems like the DNC or RNC, they likely will, he said. That means the “best protection” for the U.S. is to somehow forge “the consensus we didn’t have last year” that “if any foreign power intervenes in our affairs, let alone our elections, they will be repudiated and anyone who tries to take advantage of it will be repudiated.”

“More than anything else, I think that’s what we need to defend ourselves, because what has been unleashed is not going to be put back in the bottle” Schiff said. This is of significant concern not only due to the Kremlin’s efforts, but because it is a potential issue with any country that wants to influence U.S. affairs, Schiff added.

With the Facebook campaign, ad sales were traced to a Russian “troll farm” that has been tied to pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda, The Washington Post reported.

The campaign typically did not specifically reference the election or a particular candidate, but “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights,” according to Facebook. About 25 percent of the ads were geographically targeted.

“We also looked for ads that might have originated in Russia — even those with very weak signals of a connection and not associated with any known organized effort. This was a broad search, including, for instance, ads bought from accounts with U.S. IP addresses but with the language set to Russian — even though they didn’t necessarily violate any policy or law. In this part of our review, we found approximately $50,000 in potentially politically related ad spending on roughly 2,200 ads,” Facebook’s Alex Stamos said.

Schiff called for the U.S. to “take a very serious look at what Facebook has just revealed publicly in terms of its own analysis.”

“And one thing in particular, the Russians — and this is completely consistent with what the Intelligence Community found in its unclassified assessment — wanted among other things to sow discord in the United States,” he said.

The U.S. “ought to recognize that for what it is, which is, this is a vulnerability that they see we have, these terrible divisions within our country. And if they feel that’s a vulnerability, we need to recognize it as a vulnerability,” Schiff said.

Warner said given the growing challenge this specifically poses in the online space, there may be needed legislative reform regarding political advertising on social media sites.

Americans “ought to be able to know if there is foreign-sponsored content coming into their electoral process,” he said. With the increased importance of digital and social media, “that becomes a method of influence exponentially, I would argue, bigger than TV and radio.”

As for future U.S. election security, Schiff said “I don’t think we’re doing enough” to prepare for another cyberattack.

“It’s a particularly vibrant field for our adversaries because there’s always going to be plausible deniability. We’ve gotten very good at attribution, but our adversaries know that we’re never going to make public the full capability we have to attribute, so they’ll always have some level of deniability,” he said.

U.S. systems are “not impregnable, they are vulnerable,” the congressman noted — and the vendors of voting machines need to be much more transparent with the government regarding systems and software.

Transparency is also needed from the U.S. government and IC to the state level.

“The states still don’t know if they were victims of Russian hacking,” Schiff said. “We have not shared that information with the states. I think that’s crazy.”

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.