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The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Mark Warner (left) and Republican Richard Burr.

Bipartisan Senate report says Russian disinformation will work again without broad pushback

Gun rights. Racism. Immigration. When it came to disrupting the 2016 presidential election, Russian operatives knew all the hot buttons to push on social media, according to a report released Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

And push them they did, in what the report found was a clear and multifaceted effort to help Donald Trump and undermine Hillary Clinton — in a disinformation campaign virtually guaranteed to be resurrected with fresh approaches in the coming year.

"Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn't start and didn't end with the 2016 election," the committee said. "Their goal is broader: to sow societal discord and erode public confidence in the machinery of government. By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories, and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans."

The 85-page report is the second volume summarizing two years of work by the committee — which is unique among the congressional investigations of Russian interference in the election because it has been conducted with an emphasis on bipartisan collaboration by the Republican chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and the Democratic vice chairman, Mark Warner of Virginia.

The executive and legislative branches and Silicon Valley will all have to work together to ensure social media sites aren't exploited in the coming election, they agreed. But as for specific legislation, the only proposal endorsed in the report is bill known as the Honest Ads Act, which would require big social media companies to disclose the funders of political ads on their platforms.

Otherwise, Warner (one of the primary sponsors of the Honest Ads Act) and Burr underscored their very different preferences for how intimately Congress should be involved in tackling the problem.

In a joint statement releasing the second volume, Burr called for cooperation among social media companies, federal agencies, law enforcement and Capitol Hill.

Warner called for more assertive legislative intervention, because the 2016 election made clear that "we cannot expect social media companies to take adequate precautions on their own. Congress must step up and establish guardrails to protect the integrity of our democracy."

He said Americans need more control over their data and need to know who is paying for online political adds. Social media companies need to ensure that they are identifying phony accounts and postings and rooting out defamatory or fake content.

Among the report's findings:

  • Black people were targeted more than any other group or demographic. Russian operatives targeted African-Americans by encouraging them to sign petitions, share personal information and, in one case, help fund self-defense courses in exchange for information about those attending.
  • Social media activity by Russian operatives actually increased after Election Day. Analysis of accounts controlled by these groups found large increases in activity on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube after the election.

"The committee found that Russia's targeting of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was part of a broader, sophisticated and ongoing information warfare campaign," the report says, and Russia's approach was "a vastly more complex and strategic assault on the United States than was initially understood ... an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on the citizens and democratic institutions of the United States."

Among the committee's recommendations are that social media companies communicate more quickly with the government, law enforcement and individuals when inauthentic accounts are discovered.

And, in what carries an ironic twist, the committee called on Trump (who has denied Russian interference in the 2016 election) to warn people about the problem in advance of the 2020 election.

"A public initiative to increase media literacy and a public service announcement campaign could also help inform voters," the committee recommended.

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The House on Friday passed legislation to restore a provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The bill would require advance approval of voting changes in states with a history of discrimination. Here President Lyndon Johnson shares one of the pens he used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Passage of historic voting rights law takes a partisan turn

In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.

The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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Big Picture

TV stations fight FCC over political ad disclosure

Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.

With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.

This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.

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1952 Eisenhower Answers America

On TV, political ads are regulated – but online, anything goes

Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.

With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.

Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.

Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.

I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.

Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.

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