Wednesday December 19, 2018
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Online Trolls Exposed By FBI Task Force

FBI officials have provided top social media and technology companies with several classified briefings so far this year, sharing “specific threat indicators and account information, and a variety of other pieces of information so that they can better monitor their own platforms.”

FBI Director Christopher Wray speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House. VOA

The FBI’s new foreign influence task force is sharing information about online trolls with technology companies as part of the bureau’s behind-the-scenes effort to disrupt Russian and other foreign influence operations aimed at U.S. elections, FBI and Justice Department officials say.

FBI Director Christopher Wray set up the task force last November as part of a broader government approach to counter foreign influence operations and to prevent a repeat of Russian meddling in the 2018 midterm and the 2020 presidential elections.

The U.S. intelligence community concluded last year that Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 election in part by orchestrating a massive social media campaign aimed at swaying American public opinion and sowing discord.

“Technology companies have a front-line responsibility to secure their own networks, products and platforms,” Wray said. “But we’re doing our part by providing actionable intelligence to better enable them to address abuse of their platforms by foreign actors.”

He said FBI officials have provided top social media and technology companies with several classified briefings so far this year, sharing “specific threat indicators and account information, and a variety of other pieces of information so that they can better monitor their own platforms.”

Adam Hickey, deputy assistant attorney general of the National Security Division at the Justice Department,
Adam Hickey, deputy assistant attorney general of the National Security Division at the Justice Department, testifies on Capitol Hill. VOA

FBI expertise

The task force works with personnel in all 56 FBI field offices and “brings together the FBI’s expertise across the waterfront — counterintelligence, cyber, criminal and even counterterrorism — to root out and respond to foreign influence operations,” Wray said at a White House briefing.

Adam Hickey, a deputy assistant attorney general, said on Monday that the FBI’s unpublicized sharing of information with the social media companies is a “key component” of the Justice Department’s to counter covert foreign influence efforts.

“It is those providers who bear the primary responsibility for securing their own products and platforms,” Hickey said this week at MisinfoCon, an annual conference on misinformation held in Washington, D.C.

“By sharing information with them, especially about who certain users and account holders actually are, we can assist their own, voluntary initiatives to track foreign influence activity and to enforce their own terms of service,” Hickey said.

 Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testifies on worldwide threats during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill. VOA

The comments come as top U.S. security officials from Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on down warned about continued attempts by Russia and potentially others to disrupt the November midterm elections.

Coats said on Friday that U.S. intelligence agencies continue “to see a pervasive message campaign” by Russia, while Wray said Moscow “continues to engage in malign influence operations to this day.”

But the officials and social media company executives say the ongoing misinformation campaign does not reach the unprecedented levels seen during the 2016 election.

Hickey, of the Justice Department’s national security division, said that the agency doesn’t often “expose and attribute” ongoing foreign influence operations partly to protect the investigations, methods and sources, and partly “to avoid even the appearance of partiality.”

The logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. VOA
The logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. VOA

Social media, technology companies

Social media and technology companies, widely criticized for their role in allowing Russian operatives to use their platforms during the 2016 election, have taken steps over the past year to crack down on misinformation.

In June, Twitter announced new measures to fight abuse and trolls, saying it is focused on “developing machine learning tools that identify and take action on networks of spammy or automated accounts automatically.”

In April, Facebook announced that it had taken down 135 Facebook and Instagram accounts and 138 Facebook pages linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm indicted in February for orchestrating Russia’s social media operations in 2016.

The company did not say whether it had removed the pages and accounts based on information provided by the FBI.

Monika Bickert, head of Facebook’s product policy and counterterrorism, told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum last month that the social network has moved to shield its users against fake information by deploying artificial intelligence tools that detect fake accounts and instituting transparency in advertising requirements.

Tom Burt, vice president for customer security and trust at Microsoft, speaking at the same event, disclosed that the company had worked with law enforcement earlier this year to foil a Russian attempt to hack the campaigns of three candidates running for office in the midterm elections.

He did not identify the candidates by name but said they “were all people who, because of their positions, might have been interesting targets from an espionage standpoint, as well as an election disruption standpoint.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asks a question during a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Washington. VOA

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri confirmed late last month that Russian hackers tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate her Senate computer network, raising questions about the extent to which Russia will try to interfere in the 2018 elections.

Wray stressed that the influence operations are not “an election cycle threat.”

Also Read: Home Router Devices Were Compromised By Foreign Hackers Says FBI

“Our adversaries are trying to undermine our country on a persistent and regular basis, whether it’s election season or not,” he said. (VOA)

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Russia Declines Allegation Reports Alleging Its Meddling in The U.S. Elections

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov attends a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow. VOA

The size and scope of Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was far more extensive and thorough than previously understood, according to two newly released reports.

The reports that emerged this week support conclusions by the U.S. intelligence community — and published in an unclassified January 2017 report — that the goal of all of Russia’s meddling in the months leading up to the 2016 elections was to get their preferred candidate elected president of the United States.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party and specifically Donald Trump,” according to the report by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and network analysis firm Graphika.

Russia on Tuesday rejected the allegations in the two reports. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the accusations baseless.

The findings, as first reported by The Washington Post, said Russians working for a group called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) began experimenting with social media to influence local elections in 2009 and expanded its operations to U.S. elections in 2013 using Twitter.


A view of a business center Internet Research Agency, known as the so-called troll factory’s new office, in St. Petersburg, Russia. VOA

It gradually added other popular social media sites to its campaign, including YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, using race and social issues such as gun rights, immigration and police brutality, to sow division and discontent.


“Conservative and right-wing voters were actively encouraged to get behind Trump’s campaign,” according to the report by Oxford and Graphika. “Other voters were encouraged to boycott the election, abstain from voting for Clinton, or to spread cynicism about participating in the election in general.”

Russia’s IRA activity also sought out African-American voters in particular with advertising on Facebook and Instagram and with video content on YouTube.

“Most of the interest-based targeting focused on African-American communities and interests,” the second report by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge showed.

“Messaging to African-Americans sought to divert their political energy away from established political institutions by preying on anger with structural inequalities faced by African-Americans, including police violence, poverty and disproportionate levels of incarceration,” the Oxford University-Graphika report added. “These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African-American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead.”

USA, trump, russia
Former Donald Trump presidential campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, center, who triggered the Russia investigation, leaves federal court with wife Simona Mangiante, on Sept. 7, 2018, in Washington. VOA


Other groups such as liberals, women, Muslims, Latinos and veterans were also targeted with similar messages either appealing to their politics or trying to discourage them from voting.

This newly released data demonstrates how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology, and how the IRA actively worked to erode trust in our democratic institutions,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, said in a statement Monday. “Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped.”

“This should stand as a wake-up call,” added Senate Intelligence Committee vice chair, Democrat Mark Warner, who has been critical of social media companies and the way they have handled Russia’s online influence campaigns.

“It is time to get serious in addressing this challenge,” Warner said. “That is going to require some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media.”

The Oxford-Graphika report said it is clear the response by social media companies has been lacking.

Michael Cohen, Trump, Russia
Michael Cohen walks out of federal court, Nov. 29, 2018, in New York, after pleading guilty to lying to Congress about work he did on an aborted project to build a Trump Tower in Russia. VOA

“We clearly observe a belated and uncoordinated response from the platforms that provided the data,” the report said. “In some cases, activity on one platform was detected and suspended months before similar action was taken against related activity on another platform.”

In a statement Monday, Facebook said it continues to “fully cooperate with officials investigating the IRA’s activity on Facebook and Instagram around the 2016 election.”

“We’ve made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy,” the statement said, adding the company believes Congress and intelligence officials “are best placed to use the information we and others provide.”

“Our singular focus is to improve the health of the public conversation on our platform,” Twitter said in a statement of its own. “We’ve made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service, including our release of additional data in October related to previously disclosed activities to enable further independent academic research and investigation.”

U.S.A. Trump, Russia
Former FBI Director James Comey, with his attorney, David Kelley, right, speaks to reporters after a day of testimony before the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, on Capitol Hill in Washington. VOA

Google reactions

The reports, though, indicate the measures that have been taken may not be enough, as Russia and others continue to make use of social media platforms.

The Oxford-Graphika report said Russia’s use of social media did not peak until after the election, with the IRA buying the most ad volume on Facebook in April 2017, shortly after the U.S. airstrikes against chemical weapon sites in Syria.

And U.S. intelligence and military officials have told VOA that Russia continued to target segments of U.S. society, including ongoing efforts to influence U.S. military personnel and their families in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections.

The United States has already leveled criminal charges against IRA for interfering in the 2016 campaign.

Current and former intelligence officials also warn that it would be a mistake to focus only on Russia’s use of social media, pointing to last week’s guilty plea by Russian spy Maria Butina, who admitted to using the National Rifle Association to get close to key conservative politicians.

U.S.A., Trump, Russia
In these 2018 photos, Paul Manafort leaves federal court in Washington, left and attorney Michael Cohen leaves federal court in New York. VOA

“It illustrates … the astute understanding the Russians have of our political ecosystem,” James Clapper, former director of National Intelligence, told VOA.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election and whether the president has tried to obstruct justice by trying to undermine the probe.

Also Read: Russians Helped Trump To Win On Every Social Media Platform: Senate Report

Trump denies there was any collusion and calls the Mueller probe a “witch hunt.” (VOA)