"......Recruiting eyeballs for Russian propaganda
Looking a little deeper, the Russian influence networks are using intriguing techniques to amplify their reach and change the types of content that Americans read.
"If you look at the dashboard day-to-day, it tends to follow the topic du jour that's in the general news cycle. So you'll see conversations about DACA or 'release the memo' or NFL protests, so you get caught at looking at the granular level and lose focus of the big-picture narratives," Schafer said. "But when you zoom out and look at what's happened over the past six months, you start seeing some patterns start to emerge."
Oftentimes bots will begin tweeting about totally innocent topics, such as a sporting event or a trending Twitter topic, as a means for expanding their audience.
Schafer said he noticed the trend when he saw a number of their monitored accounts start tweeting about #MondayMotivation and #WednesdayWisdom, popular hashtags used by many American Twitter users, mixed in with content about Syria and Ukraine that Russian bots frequently discuss, in defense of Russia's interventions in those countries.
"We look at that as being the recruitment topic," Schafer told NPR. "If they started shouting about Syria and Ukraine... less people would see it, and it would be less effective."
Still searching for solutions
Still, the bots don't have a unified partisan slant, even though U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian influence operations were aimed at supporting President Trump in the 2016 campaign.
"The reality is that they also turn against Republicans," Fly said. "They have gone after administration officials like [National Security Advisor H.R.] McMaster. They've attacked [House] Speaker [Paul] Ryan, [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell. They've attacked Republican senators Marco Rubio, [Jeff] Flake, Sen. [John] McCain on a regular basis. No one in American politics is immune from the reach of these networks."
And so this is why Fly has teamed up with Laura Rosenberger, who was Hillary Clinton's foreign policy adviser during the 2016 presidential campaign. Together, they're co-directors for the Alliance for Securing Democracy's efforts to track and push back against Russian meddling in the American political system.
"The bipartisan aspect of what we're doing is actually strategically important," Rosenberger said, pointing to the apparent Russian goal of increasing political division.
Even on Capitol Hill, where bipartisanship is the exception rather than the rule, there's a bipartisan understanding that Russia meddled in the American political process during the 2016 presidential election.
Rosenberger pointed to the "nearly unanimous" vote in Congress to impose sanctions on Russia as evidence, although the White House recently said it will not implement Russia-related sanctions that Congress required because it was not necessary at this point.
Still, those on both sides of the aisle understand that there has been no letup.
"The Russian effort to undermine our democracy did not end with Election Day in 2016 — these tools, whether creation of fake accounts, or the use of automated bots, continues on an ongoing basis," said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, told NPR.
"This is not just an elections issue," added Fly, the former Rubio aide. "The reality is that Russian interference never stopped."
But even Warner, who has a front row seat at briefings by the intelligence community, acknowledges that there are as yet no clear legislative answers for how to address Russian influence operations on social media networks.
He has proposed legislation that requires social media networks to disclose the source of paid political ads. But he admits that represents a small part of how Russia influences the American political debate — and puts the onus on tech companies to disrupt automated bots.
"This is really an ongoing national security issue, and I don't think we have come up with a legislative or policy solution yet that fully gets it right," Warner said. "The social media companies really need to work in partnership with us in a way that we get this right, that people can know if an account is being manipulated by a foreign entity. And if it's being pushed by automated bots, I think a user has the right to know that information."
"U.S. intelligence agencies expect Russia to ramp up its efforts to meddle in the U.S. political system through hacking and social media manipulation, according to a worldwide threat assessment released Tuesday morning.
"Foreign elections are critical inflection points that offer opportunities for Russia to advance its interests both overtly and covertly," says the assessment. "The 2018 U.S. midterm elections are a potential target for Russian influence operations."
The nation's intelligence chiefs presented their view of the top threats confronting the nation before the Senate intelligence committee, where faced tough questioning about whether the Trump administration is responding adequately to the Russian efforts.
U.S. intelligence analysts believe that Russia will conduct "bolder and more disruptive cyber operations during the next year," targeting Ukraine, NATO and the United States, the assessment says.
"We assess that the Russian intelligence services will continue their efforts to disseminate false information via Russian state-controlled media and covert online personas about U.S. activities to encourage anti-U.S. political views," the statement says.
"Moscow seeks to create wedges that reduce trust and confidence in democratic processes, degrade democratization efforts, weaken U.S. partnerships with European allies, undermine Western sanctions, encourage anti-U.S. political views, and counter efforts to bring Ukraine and other former Soviet states into European institutions."
The assessment says that Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom President Donald Trump has repeatedly praised, "is likely to increase his use of repression and intimidation to contend with domestic discontent over corruption, poor social services, and a sluggish economy with structural deficiencies"
It adds that Putin will "continue to manipulate the media, distribute perks to maintain elite support, and elevate younger officials to convey an image of renewal. He is also likely to expand the government's legal basis for repression and to enhance his capacity to intimidate and monitor political threats, perhaps using the threat of 'extremism' or the 2018 World Cup to justify his actions."
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the committee, said that "the president inconceivably continues to deny the threat posed by Russia."
"He didn't increase sanctions on Russia when he had a chance to do so," Warner said of Trump. "He hasn't even tweeted a single concern. This threat demands a whole-of-government response, and that needs to start with leadership at the top."
I'm seeing it already and have made a couple of warnings on Facebook... Of course, those warnings have been ignored.
I use facebook and do indeed see bots or sometimes just trolls. All you have to do is look at the profile. They are almost always very protagonistic, just trying to stir up an argument.
So many people don't even think before passing on so-called info. They don't fact check supposed web sites and they don't look at profiles of argumentative 'people.'