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Russian bots still interfering in U.S. politics after election, says expert witness

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Russia had the capacity to influence key precincts in swing states with fake news-disseminating bots during the 2016 presidential election, and could still be disrupting American politics, experts said Thursday in the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s first public Russia hearing. 

Russia had every ability to create fake social media accounts by mimicking profiles of voters in key election states and precincts in the 2016 election, and use a mix of bots and real people to push propaganda from state-controlled media outlets like Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, cybersecurity experts told the Senate panel Thursday. Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University, said many social accounts during the election pushing questionable news looked just like real voters in states like Wisconsin and Michigan. 

“Part of the reason those bios had conservative, Christian, you know, America, all those terms in it, (is) those are the most common ones,” Watts said. “If you inhale all of the accounts of the people in Wisconsin, you identify the most common terms in it, you just recreate accounts that look exactly like people from Wisconsin.”

“So that way, whenever you’re trying to socially engineer them and convince them that the information is true, it’s much more simple, because you see somebody and they look exactly like you,” Watts added. Even down to the pictures. When you look at the pictures, it looks like an American from the Midwest or the South or Wisconsin or whatever the location is.”Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the committee’s vice chairman, asked if Russia could target voters without having help from people on the ground in the U.S., to which Watts said Russia can wage that kind of campaign with technological tools alone. 

“Most of this influence came online,” and “without setting foot” in the U.S., Watts said. When it comes to open-source threats, “we miss what’s right in front of our nose,” he said. 

Warner told reporters Wednesday there were “upwards of 1,000 paid internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect, taking over series of computers, which is then called a botnet.”

Democrats for months have called for a probe into any Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, but the Republican-controlled intelligence committees are just now beginning to hold public hearings. 

But Russia is just getting started using this new warfare tactic to influence American politics, cybersecurity experts said. 

“I think what we see today is going to be with us for a long time,” said witness Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Watts said he and colleagues observed possibly fake social media accounts discrediting Speaker of the House Paul Ryan last week as the health care bill collapsed, and Russia is trying to use similar tactics to influence European elections. 

Watts said U.S. intelligence missed Russian social media campaigns for a couple reasons — one, American counterintelligence has focused on terrorism, and two, members of the American intelligence community have focused on tangible human threats and not social media before their own eyes. 

But, just because Russia appeared to influence the election in a way that favored a Republican, doesn’t mean Russia favors Republicans. Targeting is “solely based on what they want to achieve in their own landscape,” Watts said. 

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio wanted to make sure, in discussing tactics, the Senate panel didn’t lose the forest for the trees and miss Russia’s overall “coordinated” effort to “sow” instability and “pit” Americans against each other. 

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