WASHINGTON—A feud between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a Democratic presidential hopeful brought more attention to the ongoing problem of Russian interference in the U.S. political process.
Last week, critics widely panned Clinton for rather clumsily accusing U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii of colluding with the Russians.
In an appearance on a podcast hosted by David Plouffe, the former campaign manager of President Barack Obama, Clinton said she believes the Russians have “their eye on someone who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate.” Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill later confirmed his boss was referring to Gabbard. “She’s the favorite of the Russians,” Clinton continued. “They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.”
In a scathing series of tweets and a video, Gabbard responded by slamming Clinton. The congresswoman said Clinton targeted her because she bucked the party line and endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in the 2016 Democratic primaries instead of Clinton.
A report released by NBC News in February found that, since Gabbard announced her bid for the White House on Jan. 11, Kremlin-linked websites and social media devoted at least 20 articles to defending her. Three websites mentioned Gabbard twice as often as higher-polling candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders. The writers described Gabbard in generally positive ways, from “straight-talking” to “heroic” for her foreign policy views.
Earlier this month, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the second volume of its report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The report describes an around-the-clock social media disinformation campaign implemented by Russian actors with the Kremlin-connected Internet Research Agency (IRA).
According to the report, the IRA had an estimated 400 employees who worked rotating 12-hour shifts in 2015. Former IRA employees testified they had to maintain multiple accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and their bosses required them to publish each day at least five political posts, 10 nonpolitical posts, and 150 to 200 interactions with other trolls’ postings and news articles. They sought to flood the internet with Kremlin-approved propaganda.
A former IRA employee testified, “Our goal wasn't to turn the Americans toward Russia. … Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent.”
IRA workers also sought to cover their tracks by masking political posts with what seemed like legitimate online content. “We had to write ‘ordinary posts’ about making cakes or music tracks we liked, but then every now and then throw in a political post,” the employee said.
One Facebook page called “Army of Jesus” primarily posted about Christian themes and Bible passages. On Oct. 31, 2016, the account posted, “Jesus will always be by your side. Just reach out to him and you’ll see!” On Nov. 1, 2016, it said, “HILLARY APPROVES REMOVAL OF GOD FROM THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE.” And on Nov. 2, 2016, it posted, “never hold on anything [sic] tighter than you hold onto God.”
During the presidential campaign, these trolls turned their attention to denigrating Clinton and Republican presidential candidates viewed as unfavorable to Russia, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. They also sought to suppress Democratic voter turnout, encourage independent turnout for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and boost turnout for then-candidate Donald Trump.
Adam Carrington, an assistant professor of politics at Hillsdale College, said lawmakers should work to counter Russian influence without turning the threat of it into a “political cudgel against opponents beyond what the facts warrant.” He advised voters to be wary of their sources of news and recommended that states should update their election systems and ensure a paper trail backs up electronic ballots.
“The proliferation of information means it’s much more on us as citizens to discern between legitimate criticism and things that are just made up,” Carrington said. “It’s not always easy, but it’s something that’s necessary if we’re going to really love our neighbors—even when you disagree with them—to make sure any criticism you have is based on some real truth.”
Such wisdom will increasingly be needed, especially in light of one of the committee’s findings: “IRA activity on social media did not cease, but rather increased after Election Day 2016.”