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The Russian connectionSocial media is “first tool” of 21st-century warfare – and it’s cheaper than F-35: Sen. Warner

Published 9 October 2017

Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that there are three things the committee has already established beyond doubt: Russia hacked both political parties and used that information in President Donald Trump’s favor; Russia attacked but did not fully break into the voter registration systems of twenty-one states; Russia used paid advertising and fake accounts on social media to disseminate misinformation to voters. The sophistication of Russia’s cyber campaign was “unprecedented,” Warner said. It was also cheap. Warner noted the amount Moscow spent in total influencing the American, French, and Dutch elections was about a quarter the cost of building an F-35 fighter jet. “If Russia’s goal was primarily to sow chaos … and secondarily elect Mr. Trump, they had a pretty good rate of return,” he said.

Senator Mark Warner (D-Virginia), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Russia’s use of social media to influence the U.S. 2016 presidential election was a demonstration of how warfare has moved away from the battlefield and toward the internet.

Speaking at The Atlantic’s Washington Ideas fest, Warner said that United States has been slow to adjust to the new reality.

“We may have in America the best twentieth-century military that money can buy, but we’re increasingly in a world where cyber vulnerability, misinformation, and disinformation may be the tools of conflict,” Warner said. “What we may have seen are the first tools of twenty-first-century disinformation.”

Defense One reports that during a public interview with The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons, Warner gave updates on the progress of the Senate investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and stressed the importance of social media companies helping Congress understand the extent of Russia’s involvement.

Warner said that there are three things the committee knows to be true: Russia hacked both political parties and used that information in President Donald Trump’s favor; Russia attacked but did not fully break into the voter registration systems of twenty-one states; Russia used paid advertising and fake accounts on social media to disseminate misinformation to voters.

The sophistication of Russia’s cyber campaign was “unprecedented,” he said. It was also cheap. Warner noted the amount Moscow spent in total influencing the American, French, and Dutch elections was about a quarter the cost of building an F-35 fighter jet.

“If Russia’s goal was primarily to sow chaos … and secondarily elect Mr. Trump, they had a pretty good rate of return,” he said.

Warner said social media companies have helped the investigation thus far, but that there is  more these companies can do. One example: Facebook linked a troll farm in St. Petersburg, Russia, which is operated by Russian government operatives, to many election-related ads – but Facebook has so far been seeking out only those organizations who paid for ads in Russian rubles. It stands to reason that many front organizations run by the GRU, the Russian intelligence agency in charge of Russia’ active measures against other countries, use servers located in different parts of the world, and purchase ads on Facebook using different currencies.

“I think the Russian services maybe know how to use dollars and euros,” Warner said.

Ten days ago, after representatives of Twitter met with the Senate Intelligence Committee, Warner said the company “showed an enormous lack of understanding” on the seriousness of this issue, CBS reported. He also called the meeting with the Twitter officials was “deeply disappointing.”

Reuters reports that he committee has asked Twitter, Facebook, and Google to testify before the committee on 1 November.

Defense Onereports that Warner said that in addition to the reluctance and foot-dragging by social media companies, another obstacle the Senate Intelligence Committee has faced is Trump’s adamant refusal to acknowledge any Russian involvement in the 2016 election in the first place. Without any point of contact in the White House, Warner said, and in the absence of presidential leadership on the issue of interference by an outside power in the American political process, it is difficult to lead a governmentwide effort to bolster electoral systems against a future attack.

“Our job is to determine whether there was collaboration or collusion, but equally if not more importantly [to determine] how to prevent this from happening again,” Warner said.