Report

Bipartisan Senate Report Undercuts Trump’s Account of 2016 Meddling

Both Republicans and Democrats affirm that Russia, not Ukraine, was responsible for tampering with the U.S. election.

A protester holds a balloon shaped like an infantile President Donald Trump.
Protesters rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court as arguments are heard in a set of cases concerning the rights of LGBTQ people in the workforce in Washington on Oct. 8. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Election Day 2016, two workers at the headquarters of Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) uncorked a tiny bottle of champagne. For months they had worked on the front line of Russia’s information war against the United States, boosting then-candidate Donald Trump and spewing divisive messages into the social media feeds of American voters.

So, at 8 a.m. local time, after a sleepless night spent working, the two of them had reason to celebrate. They “took one gulp each and looked into each other’s eyes. … We uttered almost in unison: ‘We made America great.’”

That remarkable account of the celebrations of two Russian operatives who had helped Trump win the White House is contained in a lengthy report released Tuesday by the Senate Intelligence Committee as a part of its investigation of the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 election. (How the committee was able to obtain the communications of the IRA employees is unclear, as the source is redacted.)

The report, the second volume of the committee’s investigative findings, documents how Russian operatives deployed a variety of social media platforms to spread divisive messages among the American electorate. In what represents the most complete examination to date of that campaign, Senate investigators find that Russian operatives worked to boost Trump by focusing on racial and other controversial issues in U.S. politics and then fanning the flames on both sides of the country’s infected political discourse.

“Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election,” Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “Their goal is broader: to sow societal discord and erode public confidence in the machinery of government.”

The bipartisan affirmation of Russian meddling from Capitol Hill comes at a time when Trump has directed Attorney General Bill Barr to travel abroad in an effort to cast doubt on the FBI’s investigation of Russian involvement and blame much of the meddling on Ukraine instead.

And although Tuesday’s report provides no new major revelations, it arrives at a moment when House Democrats are engaged in an impeachment inquiry over an effort by the president and his allies to dig up political dirt on his opponents and to discredit the central findings of the U.S. intelligence community about Russia’s involvement in Trump’s presidential campaign.

In his call with his Ukrainian counterpart at the center of the impeachment inquiry, Trump appeared to raise a conspiracy theory about Ukraine’s involvement in the effort to leak stolen emails.

According to the new Senate report, the Russian meddling campaign consisted of two main prongs. The first was an effort by the GRU, a wing of Russian military intelligence, to break into the email accounts of key political operatives and leak their contents online. The second was an effort by the IRA to spread divisive messages online and boost Trump. (So far, Trump and his allies have focused mostly on casting doubt on whether Russia was in fact responsible for the hack and leak campaign.)

Tuesday’s report addresses the IRA component of the operation, and it is unequivocal in assigning responsibility for it to the Russian government: “[T]he IRA sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin.”

Through their use of U.S. social media platforms, the Russian operatives were able to twist some of America’s most successful digital companies against American voters. In some 61,500 Facebook posts, 116,000 Instagram posts, and 10.4 million tweets, the operatives turned America’s divisive debates over racism, police violence, and gun rights into a wedge with which to advance Russian foreign-policy objectives.

Among the targets of that campaign, black Americans received special attention. More than 66 percent of the IRA’s Facebook advertisements contained terms related to race and those ads mostly targeted black metropolitan populations. One of the IRA’s most popular Facebook pages, dubbed “Blacktivist,” resulted in 11.2 million engagements. Half of the IRA’s most popular Instagram accounts targeted black Americans, and its Twitter trolls gave particular focus to issues with racial overtones, such as the debate over the decision by NFL players to kneel during the playing of the national anthem to protest police killings of people of color.

“No single group of Americans was targeted by IRA information operatives more than African-Americans,” the report concludes.

The Kremlin campaign to utilize modern technology in meddling in U.S. politics largely caught the federal government flat-footed, and the government comes under criticism in Tuesday’s report for failing to respond. The FBI is especially criticized for outsourcing the monitoring of foreign influence operations to a contractor, which, the report argues, “suggests FBI either lacked resources or viewed work in this vein as not warranting more institutionalized consideration.”

Tuesday’s report cautions that Russian digital meddling is unlikely to go away. Immediately after Election Day, IRA activity spiked, with Instagram use increasing 238 percent, Facebook use jumping 59 percent, Twitter posts increasing 52 percent, and YouTube citations going up 84 percent, according to data cited by the report.

And that activity will likely only grow more sophisticated. Tuesday’s report notes that Russian operatives did not use all the features of Facebook’s sophisticated ad targeting platform and that in the future they may grow more savvy in the ways they target U.S. voters.

With public discussion focusing on the IRA’s Facebook and Twitter activity, the report argues that the lack of attention on other major platforms may be obscuring the full scope of the Russian operation. IRA operatives posted far more material to Instagram than Facebook and saw higher engagement on the photo-sharing platform, but Facebook, which owns Instagram, claims IRA content on their subsidiary reached a meager 20 million users, a figure the report calls into question.

Other major platforms have also escaped major scrutiny. Executives at Reddit, a link-sharing platform, discovered 944 IRA-linked accounts that generated 14,000 posts. The image-sharing site Tumblr discovered 84 accounts linked to the IRA that created 100,000 posts and reached at least 11.7 million users in the United States.

Reddit claims that its investigation of Russian manipulation on its platform did not yield any major propaganda breakthroughs, but the website appears to have served as a staging ground for some of the IRA’s most outré content.

The IRA’s top Reddit account posted a video that claimed to show Hillary Clinton in a sex act. The video was viewed at least 250,000 times. The same account promoted a video game called “Hilltendo,” in which “players maneuver an animated Hillary Clinton as the avatar deletes emails and evades FBI agents,” the report notes.

Staff writer Amy Mackinnon contributed to this report.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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