Welcome to The Cybersecurity 202! I caught up on some time hanging out with friends this past weekend. Friends are cool. I recommend them.
Below: A watchdog criticizes the Interior Department’s cybersecurity weaknesses, and the FCC proposes new data breach rules. First:
Russian influence operations on Twitter in the 2016 presidential election reached relatively few users, most of whom were highly partisan Republicans, and the Russian accounts had no measurable impact in changing minds or influencing voter behavior, according to a study out this morning.
The study, which the New York University Center for Social Media and Politics helmed, explores the limits of what Russian disinformation and misinformation was able to achieve on one major social media platform in the 2016 elections.
“My personal sense coming out of this is that this got way overhyped,” Josh Tucker, one of the report’s authors who is also the co-director of the New York University center, told me about the meaningfulness of the Russian tweets.
“Now we’re looking back at data and we can see how concentrated this was in one small portion of the population, and how the fact that people who were being exposed to these were really, really likely to vote for Trump,” Tucker said. “And then we have this data to show we can’t find any relationship between being exposed to these tweets and people’s change in attitudes.”
(Tucker is an editor of The Monkey Cage, a blog that partnered with The Post.)
But the study doesn’t go so far as to say that Russia had no influence on people who voted for President Donald Trump.
- It doesn’t examine other social media, like the much-larger Facebook.
- Nor does it address Russian hack-and-leak operations. Another major study in 2018 by University of Pennsylvania communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson suggested those probably played a significant role in the 2016 race’s outcome.
- Lastly, it doesn’t suggest that foreign influence operations aren’t a threat at all.
Let’s dive into the numbers.
Key findings of the report:
- Only 1 percent of Twitter users accounted for 70 percent of the exposure to accounts that Twitter identified as Russian troll accounts.
- Highly partisan Republicans were exposed to nine times more posts than non-Republicans.
- Content from the news media and U.S. politicians dwarfed the amount of Russian influence content the electorate was exposed to during the 2016 race.
- There was no measurable impact on “political attitudes, polarization, and vote preferences and behavior” from the Russian accounts and posts.
The study, published this morning in Nature Communications — an offshoot of the science journal Nature magazine — is years in the making. That’s due to the amount of time needed to acquire data from Twitter, conduct the study, carry out surveys and run it through the peer review process, Tucker said.
And Twitter is easier to get data from than Facebook, given that posts are public, among other reasons, he said. Thus, the focus on Twitter, despite its smaller user base.
Plus, there were some fundamental differences with observing how people absorbed information on Twitter versus Facebook, Tucker said. “One of the super interesting things we were able to do in this paper is show that lots of what people were exposed to here was not because they were following the accounts of these Russian trolls, but because they follow people who retweeted tweets that came from these Russian trolls, and that’s easier on Twitter, where almost everything is open,” Tucker said.
“The key thing to understand here is there’s different pieces of the Russian foreign influence attempt,” Tucker said. “The vast majority of what we’ve learned so far is about what happened, not what the impact of it was.”
Tucker said Jamieson’s “amazing analysis” addressed Russia’s hack-and-leak operations, and NYU didn’t have the data to do so. In addition to Russian accounts trying to influence U.S. voters on social media, Russian hackers broke into the email accounts of Democrats and leaked them online, according to government investigators.
Another report from Columbia University relied on data from online betting markets to suggest that Russian trolls swung the 2016 election to Trump. Odds favored Democrats during Russian holidays when the nation’s trolls were less likely to be active.
Given the small margins of victory in some states for Trump, could even a small number of people who changed their attitudes as a result of Russian influence operations online have swayed the vote? The sample size of the Twitter study suggests not, but “we’ll never really know,” Tucker said. “We cannot reject out of hand that there wasn’t some incredibly unlikely confluence of things here that happened in this regard.”
Additionally, the study estimates that potentially 32 million people were exposed to Russian-sponsored tweets, whereas Facebook estimated that 126 million users potentially viewed Russian-sponsored tweets.
“Despite these consistent findings, it would be a mistake to conclude that simply because the Russian foreign influence campaign on Twitter was not meaningfully related to individual-level attitudes that other aspects of the campaign did not have any impact on the election, or on faith in American electoral integrity,” the report states.
One of the potential impacts was indirect, Tucker said: It opened the door for people to doubt that President Biden defeated Trump in 2020.
“That campaign may have been more successful for reasons that it didn’t set out to be successful, but by getting caught and having all this discussion,” he said.
The Interior Department’s inspector general wrote in a report that many agency employees used weak passwords, such as ones based around the word “password,” and that investigators were able to crack around 21 percent of agency employee passwords, including nearly 300 more powerful accounts and around 360 accounts belonging to senior government employees.
The report also blasted the Interior Department for allowing people to use just a username and password to log in to “an indeterminate number of its applications, notwithstanding 18 years of mandates from sources including NIST, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Executive Orders, as well as the Department’s own internal policies.”
The Interior Department agreed with the inspector general’s eight recommendations, but the agency also said it has security measures to lower the risk of cyberattacks. It also said it is revising its password requirements and is working to comply with U.S. government requirements around multifactor authentication.
Under the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal, telecommunications carriers would have to immediately notify law enforcement and consumers of breaches, unless officials advise them otherwise, CyberScoop’s Tonya Riley reports. The current rules require carriers with more than 5,000 customers to tell the FCC about data breaches within seven days, while smaller breaches have to be reported within a month.
“The law requires carriers to protect sensitive consumer information but, given the increase in frequency, sophistication, and scale of data leaks, we must update our rules to protect consumers and strengthen reporting requirements,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “This new proceeding will take a much-needed, fresh look at our data breach reporting rules to better protect consumers, increase security, and reduce the impact of future breaches.”
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts an event on government policy relating to open-source software on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
- Signal President Meredith Whittaker speaks at a Washington Post Live event on Tuesday at 1 p.m.
- Gen. Paul Nakasone, who leads the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command, speaks at a public forum on a government surveillance authority on Thursday. April Doss and Christopher Fonzone, the top lawyers at the National Security Agency and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, are also slated to speak at the event, which is hosted by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
- Cybersecurity practitioners meet with cybersecurity staffers on Thursday as part of Hackers on the Hill.
A report prepared for the Senate that provides the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign around the 2016 election found the operation used every major social media platform to deliver words, images and videos tailored to voters’ interests to help elect President Trump — and worked even harder to support him while in office.
The report, obtained by The Washington Post before its official release Monday, is the first to study the millions of posts provided by major technology firms to the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), its chairman, and Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), its ranking Democrat. The bipartisan panel also released a second independent report studying the 2016 election Monday. Lawmakers said the findings “do not necessarily represent the views” of the panel or its members.
The first report — by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, a network analysis firm — offers new details of how Russians working at the Internet Research Agency, which U.S. officials have charged with criminal offenses for interfering in the 2016 campaign, sliced Americans into key interest groups for targeted messaging. These efforts shifted over time, peaking at key political moments, such as presidential debates or party conventions, the report found.
The data sets used by the researchers were provided by Facebook, Twitter and Google and covered several years up to mid-2017, when the social media companies cracked down on the known Russian accounts. The report, which also analyzed data separately provided to House Intelligence Committee members, contains no information on more recent political moments, such as November’s midterm elections.
“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” the report says. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”
The report offers the latest evidence that Russian agents sought to help Trump win the White House. Democrats and Republicans on the panel previously studied the U.S. intelligence community’s 2017 finding that Moscow aimed to assist Trump, and in July, they said investigators had come to the correct conclusion. Despite their work, some Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to doubt the nature of Russia’s interference in the last presidential election.
Warner said the reports should serve as “a wake up call,” resulting in “some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media.” Burr said the reports are “proof positive that one of the most important things we can do is increase information sharing between the social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them.”
The Russians aimed particular energy at activating conservatives on issues such as gun rights and immigration, while sapping the political clout of left-leaning African American voters by undermining their faith in elections and spreading misleading information about how to vote. Many other groups — Latinos, Muslims, Christians, gay men and women, liberals, Southerners, veterans — got at least some attention from Russians operating thousands of social media accounts.
The second report — prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee by researchers for New Knowledge, Columbia University and Canfield Research — emphasized this aspect of the Russian operation, saying, “The IRA created an expansive cross-platform media mirage targeting the Black community, which shared and cross-promoted authentic Black media to create an immersive influence ecosystem.”
This report, though largely tracking with the one from Oxford and Graphika in its conclusions, also offered some new statistics, including that the Russians posted more than 1,000 YouTube videos for their disinformation campaign and that Instagram generated more than twice the “engagement” among users than either Facebook or Twitter. Such metrics track user comments, shares, likes and other actions that go beyond having an item merely appear on their screens.
Both reports also offered some of the first detailed analyses of the role played by YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, and Instagram, owned by Facebook, in the Russian campaign, as well as anecdotes about how Russians used other social media platforms — Google+, Tumblr and Pinterest — that have received relatively little scrutiny. The Russian effort also used email accounts from Yahoo, Microsoft’s Hotmail service and Google’s Gmail.
The authors of the report by Oxford and Graphika, while reliant on data provided by technology companies, also highlighted the companies’ “belated and uncoordinated response” to the disinformation campaign and, once it was discovered, their failure to share more with investigators. The authors urged that in the future they provide data in “meaningful and constructive” ways.
Facebook, for example, provided the Senate with copies of posts from 81 Facebook pages and information on 76 accounts used to purchase ads, but it did not share posts from other user accounts run by the IRA, the report says. Twitter, meanwhile, has made it challenging for outside researchers to collect and analyze data on its platform through its public feed, the researchers said.
Google submitted information in an especially difficult way for the researchers to handle, providing content such as YouTube videos but not the related data that would have allowed a full analysis. The YouTube information was so hard for the researchers to study, they wrote, that they instead tracked the links to its videos from other sites in hopes of better understanding YouTube’s role in the Russian effort.
In a statement, Twitter stressed it had made “significant strides” since the 2016 election to harden its digital defenses, including the release of a repository of the tweets that Russian agents previously sent, so researchers can review them. “Our singular focus is to improve the health of the public conversation on our platform, and protecting the integrity of elections is an important aspect of that mission,” the company added.
Facebook said it had “made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy.”
Google didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Facebook, Google and Twitter first disclosed last year that they had identified Russian interference on their sites. Critics previously said that it took too long to come to an understanding of the disinformation campaign, and that Russian strategies have likely shifted since then. The companies have awakened to the threat — Facebook, in particular, created a “war room” this fall to combat interference around elections — but none has revealed interference around the midterm elections last month on the scale of what happened in 2016.
The report expressed concern about the overall threat social media poses to political discourse within nations and among them, warning that companies once viewed as tools for liberation in the Arab world and elsewhere are now threats to democracy.
“Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike,” the report said.
Researchers also noted that the data includes evidence of sloppiness by the Russians that could have led to earlier detection, including the use of Russia’s currency, the ruble, to buy ads and Russian phone numbers for contact information. The operatives also left behind technical signatures in computerized logs, such as Internet addresses in St. Petersburg, where the IRA was based.
Many of the findings track, in general terms, work by other researchers and testimony previously provided by the companies to lawmakers investigating the Russian effort. But the fuller data available to the researchers offered new insights on many aspects of the Russian campaign.
The report traces the origins of Russian online influence operations to Russian domestic politics in 2009 and says that ambitions shifted to include U.S. politics as early as 2013 on Twitter. Of the tweets the company provided to the Senate, 57 percent are in Russian, 36 percent in English and smaller amounts in other languages.
The efforts to manipulate Americans grew sharply in 2014 and every year after, as teams of operatives spread their work across more platforms and accounts to target larger swaths of U.S. voters by geography, political interests, race, religion and other factors. The Russians started with accounts on Twitter, then added YouTube and Instagram before bringing Facebook into the mix, the report said.
Facebook was particularly effective at targeting conservatives and African Americans, the report found. More than 99 percent of all engagement — meaning likes, shares and other reactions — came from 20 Facebook pages controlled by the IRA, including “Being Patriotic,” “Heart of Texas,” “Blacktivist” and “Army of Jesus.”
Together, the 20 most popular pages generated 39 million likes, 31 million shares, 5.4 million reactions and 3.4 million comments. Company officials told Congress that the Russian campaign reached 126 million people on Facebook and 20 million more on Instagram.
The Russians operated 133 accounts on Instagram, a photo-sharing subsidiary of Facebook, that focused mainly on race, ethnicity or other forms of personal identity. The most successful Instagram posts targeted African American cultural issues and black pride and were not explicitly political.
While the overall intensity of posting across platforms grew year by year — with a particular spike during the six months after Election Day 2016 — this growth was particularly pronounced on Instagram, which went from roughly 2,600 posts a month in 2016 to nearly 6,000 in 2017, when the accounts were shut down. Across all three years covered by the report, Russian Instagram posts generated 185 million likes and 4 million user comments.
Even though the researchers struggled to interpret the YouTube data submitted by Google, they were able to track the links from other sites to YouTube, offering a “proxy” for understanding the role played by the video platform.
“The proxy is imperfect,” the researchers wrote, “but the IRA’s heavy use of links to YouTube videos leaves little doubt of the IRA’s interest in leveraging Google’s video platform to target and manipulate US audiences.”
The use of YouTube, like the other platforms, appears to have grown after Trump’s election. Twitter links to YouTube videos grew by 84 percent in the six months after the election, the data showed.
The Russians shrewdly worked across platforms as they refined their tactics aimed at particular groups, posting links across accounts and sites to bolster the influence operation’s success on each, the report shows.
“Black Matters US” had accounts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Google+, Tumblr and PayPal, according to the researchers. By linking posts across these platforms, the Russian operatives were able to solicit donations, organize real-world protests and rallies, and direct online traffic to a website that the Russians controlled.
The researchers found that when Facebook shut down the page in August 2016, a new one called “BM” soon appeared with more cultural and fewer political posts. It tracked closely to the content on the @blackmatterus Instagram account.
The report found operatives also began buying Google ads to promote the “BlackMatters US” website with provocative messages such as, “Cops kill black kids. Are you sure that your son won’t be the next?” The related Twitter account, meanwhile, complained about the suspension of the Facebook page, accusing the tech company of “supporting white supremacy.”
“It is your own Cook’s Corner, and your own FBI bikers gang who stole the election 2016 from Hillary and handed it to Trump, for just $1.3M (A lot of bang for the buck, you can’t beat it!): Kallstrom, McGonigal, and others of the #FBI heroes.
My cook is out now, and he was not good anyway; more gas than substance, the usual “Crossfire Hurricane” actor.
Trump will not drag me to prison with him! I never really believed that it will work out. I just wanted to try! I plead innocent!”
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