Senators: Big task to quash foreign election meddling online

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Republican senators said Wednesday that the government faces a momentous task in preventing foreigners from using social media to interfere in U.S. elections, citing concerns about the First Amendment and the sprawling nature of the internet.

Experts testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee said Russia and other foreign actors are using high-tech means to polarize Americans not only on elections, but also on highly charged issues like race and immigration. The hearing came one day after Facebook said it had uncovered new sophisticated efforts, possibly linked to Russia, to manipulate U.S. politics ahead of the midterm elections.

"We have bad actors putting out bad information. The difficulty is how do you segregate those people who are doing this from Americans who have the right to do this?" asked Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho. "This is just an enormous, if not an impossible, thing."

While lawmakers have voiced outrage at the interference, they haven't yet figured out what the government can do to combat it. Facebook has resisted regulation over the years, and the Republican-led Congress has so far been reluctant to crack down on social media companies, even after it was first revealed last year that a Russian internet agency had manipulated American social media during and after the 2016 election to try to further divide Americans on social issues. A bill introduced by Democrats to regulate the way election ads are shown on social media has not moved in the Senate.

The committee's Republican chairman, Richard Burr of North Carolina, said those interfering through social media are trying to "weaken our country from within" and government must find a way to respond while maintaining the rights of internet users.

"How do you keep the good while getting rid of the bad?" Burr asked. "That is the fundamental question in front of us, and it is a complex problem that intertwines First Amendment freedoms, corporate responsibility, government regulation and the right of innovators to prosper from their work."

Burr said Moscow isn't interfering because it has political leanings to the right or left or because it cares about U.S. elections, but "rather because a weak America is good for Russia."

Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that even after 18 months of study, the U.S. is only scratching the surface of Russia's information warfare campaign, which has revealed the "dark underbelly" of social media.

Warner published a list of possible ideas for regulation this week, from giving consumers more control over their data to making companies liable for fake content that they don't take down. But he has not settled on a plan. At the hearing, Warner wondered aloud about whether there could be some kind of "time out" during rapidly trending social media stories to determine if they are phony or real.

John Kelly, a social scientist and founder of Graphika, a marketing and analytics firm, told the committee that after the 2016 election, the Internet Research Agency, a Russia-based troll farm that has sowed discord in the U.S. political system, "stepped on the gas," increasing its use of fake accounts to drive dissention in American society.

He said automated accounts at the far left and far right of the American political spectrum generate as many as 25 to 30 times the number of messages that genuine political accounts put out on an average day. This results in extremists' messages "screaming while the majority whispers."

Laura Rosenberger, who directs the Alliance for Securing Democracy at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, said that tech companies need to share information and detail nefarious activities they are seeing and curtail them. She praised Facebook's announcement but said Facebook and Twitter represent only a segment of the activity.

"The Russian government and its proxies have infiltrated and utilized nearly every social media and online information platform, including Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, Tumblr, 4chan, 9GAG and Pinterest -- flooding the information zone to target Americans," Rosenberger said.

Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said at the hearing that he shudders when he hears the words "regulate the internet" -- an action he wants Congress to avoid.

"There has to be some sort of national policy that's very clearly articulated, that's public, and that notifies our adversaries if you do X, Y will happen," King said in an interview afterward with The Associated Press. "I don't know if it has to be legislation. It could be a statement of the administration."

King said President Donald Trump could be "a strong voice to the American people" if he had been less reluctant about acknowledging Russian interference.

Trump has sent mixed messages on Russian interference in the election, despite an assessment by the country's intelligence agencies that it happened.