Warner Calls For Probe Of Report That Russian Company Sent Employees To US

Get the Full StorySen. Mark Warner.

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WASHINGTON – The vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee says he'd like his committee to investigate a Russian news report that the Russian agency that purchased ads and created thousands of social media accounts during last year's presidential election also sent employees to the United States.Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, said he found the report that Russia's Internet Research Agency, had a “secret department” that deployed staff to the US during the election campaign.In another operation reported by the Russian news outlet TV Rain, IRA hired approximately 100 American activists to stage 40 rallies across the United States, the news outlet reported."I'd really like to look at it," Warner said of the report, adding that he'd been concerned "for some time" that IRA was not the only so-called troll farm preparing ads and social media campaigns to influence the outcome of elections in foreign countries."I believe there are more in Russia and in countries that there may have been Russian-influenced activities in, some of the Eastern European countries," Warner said. "I'm not saying they were all directed necessarily to the United States, but this is why we need this kind of thorough review from the platform companies to really dig in this the same way that we dig in on...a profit-making venture."The Rain TV report cited a former IRA employee who used the pseudonym Maxim to describe what he said were IRA efforts during the US election.Located in St. Petersburg, the Internet Research Agency for years has operated as a “troll farm,” where employees create multiple online characters both to shape public opinion online and to exacerbate political tensions around the world. At the prodding of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian attempts to influence the US election, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have admitted that the IRA purchased political ads.But the allegation that IRA dispatched employees to the US is a new one development in the still developing picture of how Russia meddled in the US election. What those employees were assigned to do was not detailed in the report.The FBI declined to comment on whether it was investigating the report.The IRA is technically a private company, though it’s been linked to the Kremlin and its employees consistently spread pro-Kremlin messages. The Russian government historically maintains a cloak of plausible deniability by outsourcing sensitive operations to private entities. President Vladimir Putin, for instance, referred to Russian hackers who targeted Democrats in the 2016 election — an operation that major US intelligence agencies agree was ordered by Putin himself — as independent “patriotic hackers.”Many of the IRA-purchased ads weren't explicitly political, but encouraged American users to “like” a page — which meant they would be more likely to see divisive, Russian-made political content in their Facebook feed, according to a source familiar with the ads.Warner described the ads and the fake social media accounts as parts of the same influence campaign. “The story in many ways is if the ads are pushing you to a page or to a group, and then you have lots of fake accounts who are then pushing others to try to have that page or that group trend higher, that then attracts a lot of other viewers,” he told BuzzFeed News.“The ads and the fake accounts work in tandem to generate higher placement,” he said.Facebook has acknowledged that it’s uncovered evidence that the IRA purchased about 150,000 on political ads targeting Americans. When asked if other affiliates of the Russian government had purchased political ads for the US election, a Facebook spokesperson pointed to an official blog post on the investigation, which admits “It’s possible” others bought ads, and “our internal investigation continues.”Warner said he believes IRA and others may have had far more influence than social media companies in the US have acknowledged to date. He made a reference to Facebook's response to meddling in recent elections there to make his point."In the French elections, if there were 50,000 accounts that Facebook took down, it just still seems scale-wise compared to the US , I think there's more to do," he said. Facebook has acknowledged taking down 470 accounts and pages it said were linked to the IRA.Collier reported from New York.