Officials familiar with the investigation say that Special Counsel Bob Mueller’s probe into whether President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign colluded with Russia is zeroing in on Russia’s manipulation of voters via social media with a “red hot focus.”
Chris Strohm of Bloomberg News said Wednesday that the Mueller team will be seeking evidence from social media platforms Facebook and Twitter in an effort to determine who aided Russian groups in their targeting of U.S. voters.
An official who asked to remain nameless said that the relatively ungoverned speech frontier provided by social media forums and the ability to manipulate them to influence policy outcomes and elections is known as the “soft underbelly” of modern international espionage. Because it doesn’t involve the theft of confidential information or state secrets, there are no current legal barriers or impediments against it.
At a cybersecurity summit on Wednesday in Washington, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said that his agency and the FBI are expanding their effort to prevent similar attacks from taking place in the future.
“Russia has clearly assumed an even more aggressive cyber posture by increasing cyber espionage operations and leaking data stolen from those operations,” Coats said.
Strohm said that Mueller’s office refused to comment on the investigation and Russian officials have repeatedly denied any effort to influence the outcome of the 2016 contest.
Facebook is coming under intense scrutiny from federal regulators after reports last week that the company accepted $150,000 in ad revenue from Russian “troll farms” publishing socially divisive stories during the run-up to the election.
How the Russians knew to target the tiny voting blocs in individual districts is believed to be attributable to one or more individuals inside the Trump campaign and administration. Jared Kushner — director of Trump 2016’s digital operation — has been mentioned as a possible connection between Russian intelligence and the Trump organization.
Facebook has been slow to share information and data about Russian efforts to manipulate the election, Strohm said. “The Menlo Park, California-based company has so far declined to disclose the specifics of the ads and believes the information may be protected under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, according to a person familiar with the matter.”
The Russian social media push was complicated and multi-level, say experts like former Deputy Director of the National Security Agency Richard Ledgett.
“The surprise was the integration into a whole campaign,” he said. “It’s the amplification of some stories and the suppression of other stories to bias you. That’s really hard to fight against. That’s where people need to think critically.”
Ledgett said that the U.S. effort to push back against these propaganda pushes have been complicated and stymied by a lack of clear policy direction from the top of the chain of command. President Donald Trump, wrote Strohm, has been “reluctant” to engage the investigation into Russian meddling.
When asked for comment, the FBI directed Bloomberg to Director Christopher Wray’s statement on Sep. 7.
“The FBI also has a counterintelligence mission, which is more of a forward-looking mission, just more geared towards prevention — that is prevention of Russia interference in, say, a future election,” Wray told a conference audience. “I’m impressed with the strides that are being made on that front.”