Trump's campaign tactics, trolls strengthened Russia's election meddling, expert says

PHOTO: Sen. Richard Burr, right, and Sen. Mark Warner hold a news conference on the committees investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election on Capitol Hill, March 29, 2017. PlayMichael Reynolds/EPA
WATCH Russia expert says Trump strengthened Russian propaganda

During the Senate Intelligence Committee's open hearing Thursday, an expert on Russia pointed to President Donald Trump's tactics during the campaign and the widespread emergence of internet "trolls" and "bots" as the reason why Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election was effective.

"Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents," said Clint Watts, a senior fellow for the Foreign Policy Research Institute Program on National Security and former FBI special agent. "Active measures" is a Soviet term for attempts to influence events to undermine an opponent.

Watts then pointed to several incidents in which Trump pushed theories that Russian news outlets also promoted.

"He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claimed that the election could be rigged; that was the number one theme pushed by RT Sputnik news," Watts said. "So part of the reason active measures works and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being wiretapped is because they parrot the same lines."

The FBI director, as well as the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, have acknowledged that there’s no evidence to back Trump’s March 4 claim that President Barack Obama ordered his phones at Trump Tower be wiretapped during the campaign.

Trolls and bots

Several senators, including the committee's vice chair Mark Warner, D-Virginia, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida, acknowledged the effect of so-called trolls -- internet users posting and engaging with content online to elicit a reaction or promote propaganda. In some instances, these trolls were automated, termed "bots," and could post at high volumes, expanding the reach of a message.

"You can look at it like artillery," said Watts. "So you have someone engaging with you as individual, and at the same time, they can launch a bot to amplify that story forward."

Watts explained that bots fool users into believing misinformation is more popular -- and thus, more believable -- by artificially increasing levels of engagement, such as shares and retweets. Once bots amplify propaganda or a fake news story, real users begin to pick it up and eventually, it infiltrates the "mainstream media," where it gains more traction, even if it's debunked, he said.

"Until we get a firm basis on fact and fiction in our own country, get some agreement about the facts ... we're going to have a big problem," Watts said.

Watts later added that his "biggest concern right now is I don’t know what America’s stance is on Russia.” He additionally said that Russia-linked Twitter accounts tweet at President Trump at "high volumes when they know he's online and they push conspiracy theories."

At one point, Watts told Rubio that his campaign for president had, in Watts' opinion, "suffered through these efforts" from Russia to sink the hopes of candidates "more hostile" to its country.

According to the experts who testified Tuesday, the Russian government is also attempting to interfere in other ongoing national elections, including in France and Germany.

The 'second Cold War'

Watts' comments went beyond the 2016 election, with him telling the committee that Russia's desire is to continue to polarize the U.S. and that techniques have been renewed for today's stand-offs.

"Soviet active measures, strategy and tactics have been reborn and updated for the modern Russian regime and the digital age," said Watts. "Today, Russia hopes to win the second Cold War through the force of politics, as opposed to the politics of force.”

As for the U.S.'s ability to stop it, the former special agent criticized the country's organizational capabilities to cultivate a unified response.

"The overriding issue with why Russia did this to the United States and does it now to Europe is: We are weak. We do not respond," said Watts. "We have no organized response as a country, or even policy toward Russia as a country, right now."

Other elections

The U.S. presidential election was not the only vote that Thursday's panel believes has felt the effects of Russian meddling. During his opening statement, Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Virginia, discussed purported interference that has taken place across Europe and the preventative steps other countries are taking.

"Germany has said its Parliament has been hacked. French presidential candidates right now have been the subjects of Russian propaganda and disinformation," said Warner. "In the Netherlands, in their recent elections, the Dutch hand-counted their ballots because they feared Russian interference in their electoral process."

Eugene Rumer, one of today's witnesses who works as the director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, called Russia's actions in 2016 part of a "toolkit" that it will continue to rely on "in the months and years to come," not just in the U.S. but in France and Germany as well.

"Deception and active measures have long been and will remain a staple of Russian dealings with the outside world for the foreseeable future," said Rumer.

Ongoing inquiries

The testimony was part of the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election. In addition to Watts and Rumer, others who testified Thursday included cybersecurity and international relations experts, plus retired Army Gen. Keith Alexander, a former director of the National Security Agency.

While the House Intelligence Committee is embroiled in controversy, the Senate Intelligence Committee's chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, and vice chair, Warner, vowed to get to the bottom of Russia's interference in the U.S. election and any possible collusion between Trump, his campaign aides and the Russian government.

"This investigation's scope will go wherever the intelligence leads," Burr said Wednesday in a joint press conference with Warner. "So, it is absolutely crucial that every day we spend trying to separate fact from fiction."

The Senate Intelligence Committee sent requests to 20 individuals to be interviewed, and so far five are scheduled.

On the House side, Democrats are calling for Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to recuse himself from the committee's probe because of doubts that he would not be impartial in the investigation. Nunes has said he will not step aside.

The Senate Intelligence Committee's leaders made clear Wednesday they do not want to be associated with the House's investigation.

"We're not asking the House to play any role in our investigation. We don't plan to play any role in their investigation," Burr said.

The Senate Intelligence Committee held an open hearing in January in which intelligence leaders blamed the Russian government for the hacking of individuals and organizations involved in the 2016 presidential election.

"We have high confidence that President Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election," James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said at the time. "The goals of this campaign were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton and harm her electability and potential presidency. Putin and the Russian government also developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump."