Disinformation expert warns senators that Russia is still trying to suppress minority votes and divide the left
President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin (Kremlin photo)

At a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence Wednesday, a cybersecurity expert warned that the Kremlin continues to exploit social media to influence America’s elections.

Renee DiResta, Director of Research at the cybersecurity company New Knowledge, explained how social media has opened a new front in the global propaganda wars.

“Over the past decade, disinformation, misinformation, and social media hoaxes have evolved from a nuisance into high-stakes information war,” she said.

“Our frameworks for dealing with them, however, remain the same -- we discuss counter-messaging and counter-narratives, falling into the trap of treating this as a problem of false stories rather than as an attack on our information ecosystem.”

She pointed out that out of date regulatory systems leave too much power in the hands of private companies, which don’t have much incentive to protect the public discourse.

“We find ourselves in the midst of an arms race, in which responsibility for the integrity of public discourse is largely in the hands of private social platforms, and determined adversaries continually find new ways to manipulate evolving feature sets and circumvent new security measures.”

After she finished her opening statement, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked DiResta about ongoing Russian efforts to influence American elections.

“Ms. DiResta, your testimony referenced the Russian Facebook pages in 2016 targeting both the right and the left. But you noted it was the pages targeting the left that includes not only content intended to appeal to its audience, but also content intended to suppress the vote and be critical of Secretary Clinton,” he said.

“In your view, does the apparent Russian content released yesterday by Facebook resemble the content the Russians used last time to attract an audience on the left and among racial minorities which the Russians then used to suppress their vote?”

“Yes sir it does,” DiResta replied. “There’s a strong component of cultural posts that appear in communities and pages targeting minority voters. A lot of pride-related content. Less news, more memes. And that reflects what we saw yesterday.”

“Content-targeting is going to be a big part of the challenge and the public’s got to be aware of it because not all Russian propaganda is going to get caught,” Wyden continued.

“And Americans are inevitably going to read something … particularly if it’s consistent with what they already believe.”

“The public has got to be alert to a repeat of the 2016 Russian playbook which was to attract an audience on the Left, discourage them from voting and that could mean attacking Democratic candidates … in effect the Russians are trying to make it possible that our votes don’t matter. Is that essentially your concern?” Wyden asked.

“Yes sir, there’s a lot of efforts to push intra-party divisions on the left.”