Burr: Media Oversimplifying Russian Online Attack

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the media had fixated on social media in the Russia election meddling story and he wanted to push back on one of the prime narratives.

That came in a hearing Wednesday (Nov. 1) with representatives of Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Burr said many in the media had reduced the Russia story to one premise: Foreign actors had conducted a surgical covert operation to help elect a U.S. President.

He said the story is not that simple.

For example, he said the stories about disinformation ads, some demographically targeted, that were bought in swing states Wisconsin and Michigan and said to have affected the outcome of the election lacked context. That context included that five times more ads were targeted at Maryland (262 vs 55 in Wisconsin), a station not up for grabs--Hillary Clinton carried it by 26%--or that fewer ads were bought in Pennsylvania than in D.C., where 87% voted for Clinton.

As to the reports of the $100,000 worth of advertising bought by Russian actors, Burr said the media had failed to provide the context that the total spending in Wisconsin, for example, was only $1,979; in swing state Michigan, $825; and in Pennsylvania only $300.

Burr said he understood the urge to make complex stories simple, and interpret information to conform to conclusions already drawn, but said that was bias.

He said that if anyone suggested they had the Russian attack figured out, they were kidding themselves, and the country couldn't afford to kid itself about what happened in the 2016 election.

He said the committee's investigation into foreign interference--it has held a dozen hearings touching on Russia, he said--is not about re-litigating the election, but about national security, corporate responsibility, and the effort by agents of a hostile power to manipulate and divide and inflame the nation along issues like race, immigration and Second Amendment rights.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.