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WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan panel of U.S. senators on Tuesday called for sweeping action by Congress, the White House and Silicon Valley to ensure social media sites aren't used to interfere in the coming presidential election, delivering a sobering assessment about the weaknesses that Russian operatives exploited in the 2016 campaign.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, a Republican-led panel that has been investigating foreign electoral interference for more than two and a half years, said that Russians worked to damage Democrat Hillary Clinton while bolstering Republican Donald Trump and made clear that fresh rounds of interference are likely ahead of the 2020 vote.

"Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn't start and didn't end with the 2016 election," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the committee's chairman. "Their goal is broader: to sow societal discord and erode public confidence in the machinery of government. By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories, and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans."

Though the 85-page report itself had extensive redactions, in the visible sections lawmakers urged their peers in Congress to act, including through the potential adoption of new regulations that would make those who bought an ad more transparent. The report also called on the White House and the executive branch to adopt a more forceful, public role, warning Americans about the ways in which dangerous misinformation can spread while creating new teams within the U.S. government to monitor for threats and share intelligence with the industry.

The recommendations call for Silicon Valley to more extensively share intelligence among companies, in recognition of the shortage of such sharing in 2016 and also the ways that disinformation from Russia and other countries spreads across numerous platforms -- with posts linking back and forth in a tangle of connections.

"The Committee found that Russia's targeting of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was part of a broader, sophisticated and ongoing information warfare campaign," the report says. The Russian effort was "a vastly more complex and strategic assault on the United States than was initially understood ... an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on the citizens and democratic institutions of the United States."

The committee report recounts extensive Russian manipulation of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Google and other major platforms with the goal of dividing Americans, suppressing black voter turnout and helping elect Trump. But Tuesday's report, the second volume of the committee's final report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, offered the most detailed set of recommendations so far for stiffening the nation's defenses against foreign meddling online -- now a routine tactic for many nations.

The White House, say numerous researchers and outside critics, has failed to lead the kind of aggressive, government-wide effort they argue would protect the 2020 race, though some federal agencies took steps to address foreign threats more forcefully during the 2018 congressional election.

That included a cyber-operation that disrupted Russia's Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, on election day. Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted the agency and 13 affiliated Russians for their alleged role in 2016 election interference, which played a central role as well in Mueller's landmark final report, released in April.

Lawmakers delivered their recommendations just days after new revelations of possible election interference jolted Washington. On Friday, Microsoft announced it had discovered Iranian-linked hackers had targeted the personal email accounts associated with a number of current and former government officials, journalists writing on global affairs and at least one presidential candidate's campaign.

Iran has joined Russia as a leader in foreign online interference. The list of countries known to have conducted such operations also includes Saudi Arabia, Israel, China, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Venezuela, say researchers. A report by Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Project said last month that at least 70 nations have sought to manipulate voters and others online, though most meddle mainly in their own domestic politics.

A Section on 10/09/2019

Print Headline: Senators want social media fortified against foreign meddlers

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