Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) says he was not surprised when Special Counsel Robert Mueller laid out his case against 13 Russians and three companies for conspiring to interfere in the 2016 elections, in big part by using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“What’s so stunning is how cheaply this can be done,” Warner tells Variety in an exclusive interview, adding that the price to Russia of this information warfare adds up to “less than the cost of one F-35” fighter jet.
Warner, 63, is the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is in the midst of its own Russia investigation, and he’s been perhaps the most visible figure in Congress in pressing for answers from Silicon Valley on the role of social media in state-sponsored misinformation campaigns. He calls it the “underbelly” of an industry that was, until very recently, viewed as a “benign ecosystem” with altruistic leaders.
He says the responses from giants like Facebook and Twitter have been for the most part “a day late and a dollar short,” adding that the steps that they’ve taken won’t be enough. “I think they run the risk of being one significant event away from people losing faith in those platforms,” he says.
The problem, he adds, is that there are companies whose business model relies almost entirely on bots to generate revenue.
It hasn’t stopped. Russian trolls and bots are linked to social media messages that comment on even the most recent policy debates, like the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Intelligence chiefs recently appeared before the committee to warn of election interference happening again in the run-up to this year’s midterms. Warner says his own social media accounts have been targeted, but wouldn’t go into details.
Some of the steps taken by Facebook and Twitter are aimed at verifying the identities of those who purchase political ads on their platforms, but Warner says that misses the point, because the amount spent on paid advertising was “peanuts” compared with other means of trying to influence opinion on social media.
“The story is the 80 to 100 hackers who are at the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia, and how many fake accounts they have created,” Warner says, noting that their mission was to generate a lot of followers, in some cases pushed by bots, and then start seeding sites with propaganda that was “pro-Trump and anti-Clinton.”
He points to one of the most notorious examples, in which Russian-linked firms posed as a grassroots group organizing an anti-Muslim rally at a mosque in Texas in October 2016. The group also was behind a counterprotest. Police presence prevented the event from becoming a clash like the one in Charlottesville, Va., last year, Warner says.
So what should be done?
Warner is co-sponsoring legislation to require greater political ad disclosure, but that has stalled. He suggests that the companies have to come up with a way to verify sources of information, not just sources for the ads. “When you read something, shouldn’t you have a right to know that it’s a real person who’s talking?” Warner posits. “Shouldn’t we have a right to know, at the minimum, whether the source of the information we’re reading is domestic or not?”
Warner calls balancing the need to verify sources on the internet with the constitutional guarantee of free speech a “tricky business.”
For instance, he says that the Constitution protects the right of two people in Texas to organize a political event via social media. He notes that it’s hard to see that right extending to “one individual in St. Petersburg” who’s creating two false identities to stage a rally.
Warner says he’s most concerned about companies trying to “hide behind our Bill of Rights” and claiming that kind of behavior on the part of Russian sources is somehow protected. “Not only are they not American,” he notes, “but they aren’t even representing who they are.”
Facebook and Twitter say that they have been deploying armies of staffers tasked with verification. Twitter, for instance, has been undergoing a bot purge to try to limit automation.
Warner believes that some of Facebook’s actions will slow the ability of a foreign entity to use paid ads to back or oppose a specific candidate, but he has concerns that the problem is much more widespread than internet companies or the government even know.