The election-interference indictment brought by Robert Mueller, the U.S. special counsel, underscores how thoroughly social-media companies like Facebook and Twitter were played by Russian propagandists.
And it’s not clear whether the companies have taken sufficient action to prevent something similar from happening again.
Thirteen Russians, including a businessman close to Vladimir Putin, were charged Friday in a plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through social media propaganda. The indictment said the Russians’ conspiracy aimed, in part, to help Republican Donald Trump and harm the prospects of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The alleged scheme was run by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm based in St. Petersburg, Russia, which used bogus social media postings and advertisements fraudulently purchased in the name of Americans to try to influence the White House race. The messages also sought to denigrate Trump GOP primary rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and to support Clinton’s Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders.
“I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people,” wrote one of the defendants, Irina Kaverzina, in an email to a family member obtained by investigators.
Tech companies have spent months pledging to fix their platforms ahead of the upcoming midterm elections this year, and reiterated those promises Friday. Twitter said in a Friday night statement it is “committed to addressing, mitigating, and ultimately preventing any future attempts to interfere in elections and the democratic process, and to doing so in the most transparent way possible.” Facebook thanked U.S. investigators for taking “aggressive action” and pointed out its own role in helping the investigation.
Researchers, however, noted that the companies’ business incentives don’t necessarily align with improved security and anti-hoaxing measures that might have frustrated Russian agents.
“I’ve never been convinced that these sites are motivated to fix a problem like this,” said Notre Dame business professor Timothy Carone, who added that security controls make it harder for sites like Facebook to offer users new features and keep advertisers happy. “It’s a really, really, really difficult problem.”
The indictment confirms earlier findings from congressional investigations that Russian agents manipulated social media to promote social division by mimicking grassroots political activity. It also underscores that the problem wasn’t just “bots” — i.e., automated social-media accounts — but human conspirators who fine-tuned propaganda and built online relationships with American activists.
The idea was to “sow as much discord as possible,” said Melissa Ryan, a Democratic social media marketing expert who now keeps track of right-wing online activity. “This was America that was attacked.”
Social-media companies weren’t the only ones subverted in the influence campaign. Federal prosecutors allege that Russian criminals used PayPal as a primary conduit to transfer money for general expenses and to buy Facebook ads aimed at influencing voters. Prosecutors say the accounts were opened using fake identities to help bypass PayPal’s security measures.
PayPal spokesman Justin Higgs said the San Jose, California, company has been cooperating with the Justice Department and is “intensely focused on combatting and preventing the illicit use” of its services.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer outlined the complexity of preventing abuse.
“Election integrity is challenging because again, you’re dealing with adversaries,” Schroepfer said during a conference in Half Moon Bay, California. “They are trying to accomplish a goal and they have smart people who are trying to figure out their way into the system to accomplish that.”
For instance, infiltrators often react immediately to countermeasures. If they figure out Facebook is checking the internet addresses of computers to identify visitors from particular countries, Schroepfer said, “they’ll take over a machine with malware in the U.S. and post from there instead. People say, ‘Why don’t you just check the currency or the IP address?’ And as soon as you do that, literally that afternoon, they will change tactics.”
Schroepfer said the company is making “good headway” on the problem, although he declined to give specifics. “By kind of doing a lot better job of trying to figure out the authenticity of these different actors, we can certainly stop that sort of behavior,” he said. “There’s a big focus on that.”
On the other hand, now that the Russians have shown how this sort of campaign is done, the door is open for others — including American special interest groups — to use the same tactics to target disaffected voters in the right places, said David Gerzof Richard, a communications professor at Emerson College.
“This is the new norm,” he said. “It’s not going away. It’s not going to be magically fixed by a Silicon Valley CEO or a group of executives saying they’re going to do better.”
“This is the new norm.
It’s not going away. It’s not going to be magically fixed by a Silicon Valley CEO or a group of executives saying they’re going to do better.” David Gerzof Richards, communications professor at Emerson College
ONALASKA — Onalaska Mayor Joe Chilsen has added his voice to the calls for Judge John Brinckman to resign from the Coulee Region Joint Municipal Court.
Chilsen said he supported the position of Onalaska Common Council members Harvey Bertrand and Ron Gjertsen, who both have asked the judge to step down in the wake of an independent investigation that raised concerns about processes and oversight at the court.
Asked to respond to the calls for his resignation, Brinckman said that he has no plans to step down and wants to set the record straight about what he views as unfounded allegations about his leadership of the court.
Among the concerns listed in the report that sparked the criticism of the judge was a “lack of organization of paper and files” in the court and Brinckman “not being around” enough to lead the office. The report was presented to the council last month and was prepared by accounting firm Hawkins Ash.
“I think it’s time that we got a judge that can not only mete out justice but can actively manage the department,” Chilsen said, adding that as the officer of the court Brinckman was responsible for the issues around the handling of data.
However, in an interview Thursday, Brinckman said the Hawkins Ask investigation lacked context and a basic understanding of his role. He also said the authors of the report had failed to interview key players, including the municipal court supervisor, Hildie McIntyre. The judge said he was willing to go “line for line” through the report and show that most of the concerns raised in the document were unfounded.
“You’ve got a council that instead of sending out a letter to me and asking me talk to them is asking me to resign based on incomplete and wrong information,” Brinckman said.
The municipal court judge position is part time, Brinckman said, a fact that in his view eluded the Hawkins Ash investigators. He added that it was not his responsibility to ensure data from the court was properly recorded.
But, acknowledging the report had raised some legitimate concerns, Brinckman said data processing has been improved at the court. He said his own investigation into the matter found only 117 unprocessed citations out of the last 10 years.
The three-page Hawkins Ash report was commissioned after the discovery of a number of boxes of unprocessed citations in a basement of the court. Some city officials have put the number of boxes as high as 30, others at six. Brinckman disputes how many boxes were found.
Bertrand, who was the first to call on the judge to resign, said the exact number was not important.
“By observing the mismanagement in handling paperwork, I have no reason to believe what goes on in the courtroom and in private time that should have been performed in preparing for these cases is any less flawed,” Bertrand said last month at a meeting of the Coulee Region Joint Municipal Court Committee.
Bertrand told the common council last week that he felt a responsibility to make his thoughts on the judge public and urged the council to consider taking a vote of no confidence in the judge.
The judge soon will have an opportunity to detail to the common council why he thinks the allegations against him are unfair. Chilsen said he told Brinckman it would “in his interest” to attend and speak at the next council meeting.
Gjertsen pointed, however, out that the judge has always been free to come and speak to the council.
“It doesn’t really make a difference what the judge says at this point,” Gjertsen said. “It’s a job performance issue, and he’s not doing a good job.”
The council cannot compel Brinckman to resign, but, as Gjertsen suggested at Tuesday’s council meeting, it could consider withdrawing Onalaska from the court. Alternatively, a recall election effort could be launched, although Gjertsen said that he would not recommend that path.
The Hawkins Ash report, which cost the city $8,000, involved a series of tests of samples of citations taken from one month in 2015, 2016 and 2017, to see whether they had been properly processed.
Among 153 citations from February 2017, Hawkins Ash found that “some tickets had no follow-up for months after no payment” was received. Seventeen of the citations were missing paperwork, and nine were not properly entered into the software system used by the court. There also were numerous problems with citations sampled from other months in 2016 and 2015.
In a section of the report titled “general comments,” Hawkins Ash noted that “judge oversight (physical presence) is a concern. Hear comments about the judge not being around and didn’t know how he would handle certain things.”
Brinckman ran unopposed for the municipal court judge’s position in 2016, when he was re-elected to a four-year term.