The Senate Intelligence Committee held its first hearing on possible Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election and its “information warfare.”

It was revealed that hackers targeted Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) during his presidential campaign:

“Former members of my presidential campaign team who had access to the internal information of my presidential campaign were targeted by IP addresses with an unknown location within Russia,” Rubio said Thursday. “That effort was unsuccessful. I would also inform the committee within the last 24 hours, at 10:45 a.m. yesterday, a second attempt was made, again, against former members of my presidential campaign team who had access to our internal information — again targeted from an IP address from an unknown location in Russia. And that effort was also unsuccessful.”

Targeted Candidates and Opponents of Trump

Former FBI agent and cybersecurity expert Clinton Watts explained to the committee that Russia targeted Rubio and any opponents of President Trump with a propaganda campaign:

“[Russian information warfare activities] were in full swing during both the Republican and Democratic primary season and may have helped sink the hopes of candidates more hostile to Russian interests long before the field narrowed,” Watts said.

“Senator Rubio, in my opinion, you anecdotally suffered from these efforts,” he added.

Watts also relayed that experts “observed social media campaigns targeting speaker of the House Paul Ryan hoping to foment further unrest amongst US democratic institutions.”

Use of Disinformation

Watts also told the committee the methods the hackers used to spread disinformation. He reminded the senators that  “it’s not all automated and it’s not all human, it’s a combination of the two.” He continued:

“You can have someone engaging with you as an individual and using a bot to amplify their message… or [they] can create more personas on Twitter, for example.” This sort of thing saw an uptick in 2014, but Watts says it wasn’t until 2015 that “they tied hacking and influence together for the first time.”

He went on to explain how Russia state actors create believable sock puppet accounts by insinuating themselves into the middle of a demographic they wish to influence. Using Wisconsin as an example, Watts described how such an actor would first “inhale” all of the accounts from a given slice of the population, parsing out details so they can then replicate the prevailing qualities in an average account. “They look exactly like you. It looks like an American from the Midwest or the South.”

Hackers attempt “to build an audience within that target group, but they run into a bit of a problem when they wish to rebrand the sock puppet with a different identity.” The hackers do not want to shed the audience they’ve acquired so they reprogram the accounts “strategically” to push the information:

Those strategic accounts then work together to create the news of the day. Accounts associated with Russian intelligence “tweet heavily at Trump during times they know he’s online [in order] to push conspiracy theories.”

After pushing coordinated waves of the propaganda du jour, such a high volume of content usually ends up trending. “Once it pushes to the top of the feed, mainstream news pays attention.”

When established news organizations must weigh in in order to debunk those fake news pushes, it still sets the national conversation for the day and distracts from other news that might work against Russia’s interests, continuing the story’s spread “organically.”

The Senate Committee Wants to Remain Bipartisan

We’ve seen the House Intelligence Committee implode over this subject. Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) want to avoid the partisanship and fights that have plagued their counterparts:

“We’re all targets of a sophisticated and capable adversary,” Burr said in his opening statement, “and we must engage in a whole-of-government approach to combat Russian active measures.”

“We simply must — and we will — get this right,” Warner said. “The chairman and I agree it is vitally important that we do this as a credible, bipartisan and transparent manner as possible. As was said yesterday at our press conference, Chairman Burr and I trust each other.”

Both men also admitted that evidence shows Russia preferred Trump, but overall wanted to destabilize America:

“Candidly, while it helped one candidate this time, they are not favoring one party over another,” Warner said, “and, consequently, should be a concern for all of us.”


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