A bipartisan group of senators is warning the media, politicians and public figures that they need to exercise caution in amplifying Twitter, Facebook and other social media posts in 2020, as Russia and other countries continue to try to influence voter sentiment.
The series of recommendations also includes an endorsement of a proposal that would require the source of online political ads be disclosed. TV, radio and satellite entities are required to include such information in political ads (i.e., I’m candidate X, and I approve this message), so this would bring tech companies in line with other forms of media.
The report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) and vice chair Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), concludes that the Russia-linked Internet Research Agency “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.”
That is nothing new. What is different is that the report is bipartisan, even as President Donald Trump has continued to cast doubt on whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election – and whether it is continuing to do so for 2020.
The report offers a series of recommendations, many of them aimed at social media platforms. It recommends that Congress look into whether Facebook, Twitter, Google and others should be required to report such things as fake accounts and foreign-based disinformation campaigns to law enforcement.
“Formalizing a relationship between social media companies and the government does present some legal considerations, but these should not be prohibitive,” the report said.
Legislation to require greater information about online political ads was first proposed in 2017, but it has yet to advance. Facebook recently revised its requirements for more information about the source of political and issue oriented ads.
It also recommends that the Trump administration “reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election.” That includes federal funding for state and local education institutions for media literacy starting at an early age. Such an effort, the report stated, “would help build long-term resilience to foreign manipulation of our democracy.” The Senate committee also called for the creation of an interagency task force to monitor social media platforms for interference in the election.
The report singled out not just candidates and campaigns, but other public figures who regularly engage in political discourse on social media as vulnerable to disinformation efforts. That’s particularly relevant as some celebrities increase their engagement about and around the 2020 election.
“Such public figures, precisely because of the reach of their networks, are valuable targets for adversaries, and can quickly be co-opted into inadvertently promoting a foreign influence operation,” the report stated.
The report also found that African-Americans were targeted by the Internet Research Agency more than any other demographic group, as the Russian-linked group sought to exploit social and racial divisions. This included efforts to get social media users to sign petitions and give up personal information, and other campaigns to depress voter turnout.
Even after Trump won the election, the activity of the Internet Research Agency increased, with a 238% spike in activity on Instagram, 59% on Facebook, 52% on Twitter and 84% on YouTube.
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