Senate Report: 2016 Russian Social Media Campaign Meant to Elect Trump

The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee's bipartisan report on Russia's use of social media to meddle in the 2016 election concludes that such activity was "overtly and almost invariably" aimed at electing Donald Trump and defeating Hillary Clinton, but as part of a larger campaign to sow discord generally.

That is according to the committee's investigation into Russia's efforts to sow discord during the presidential election and its second volume of findings released Tuesday (Oct. 8) and entitled "Russia's Use of Social Media."

The first volume, released in July, focused on Russian attacks on election infrastructure. It recommended creating an "overarching" cybersecurity doctrine.

Among the other key findings of the report were that the Russian's particularly looked to exacerbate racial tensions, and that such activity actually increased after the 2016 election.

In response to the second volume, ranking member Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), said the government needs to put some "guard rails" on social media as the 2020 election approaches, arguing they can't be expected to adequately protect their platforms on their own.

Related: Warner Says Congress Needs to Take Action on Social Media Giants

Social media companies cooperated in the investigation, as did experts in social media analysis and disinformation. as well as in the analysis of complex data sets.

“Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election," said Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.). "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. While Russia may have been the first to hone the modern disinformation tactics outlined in this report, other adversaries, including China, North Korea, and Iran, are following suit."

"Russia took advantage of our openness and innovation, exploiting American-bred social media platforms to spread disinformation, divide the public, and undermine our democracy," said Warner. "Now, with the 2020 elections on the horizon, there’s no doubt that bad actors will continue to try to weaponize the scale and reach of social media platforms to erode public confidence and foster chaos."

Warner's answer, or at least one of them, is for government to start regulating Big Tech.

“As was made clear in 2016, we cannot expect social media companies to take adequate precautions on their own. Congress must step up and establish guardrails to protect the integrity of our democracy," Warner said. "At minimum, we need to demand transparency around social media to prevent our adversaries from hiding in its shadows. We also need to give Americans more control over their data and how it’s used, and make sure that they know who’s really bankrolling the political ads coming across their screens. Additionally, we need to take measures to guarantee that companies are identifying inauthentic user accounts and pages, and appropriately handling defamatory or synthetic content."

President Donald Trump had not yet tweeted on the report at press time, but he has called the investigation into Russian election meddling a "witch hunt" created by Democrats and their swamp-dwelling media allies as part of a campaign to delegitimize his presidency. 

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.