April 11, 2019

Ranking Member Klobuchar Urges Department of Homeland Security and FBI to Establish Election Security Task Force

Letter encourages Department of Homeland Security and FBI to establish a task force to combat the spread of online misinformation designed to undermine our elections

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) today urging them to work with the businesses and state election officials to establish a task force to combat the spread of misinformation. Leading tech companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Microsoft use cross-platform task forces to monitor and remove illegal content such as child pornography and content posted by terrorist organizations. In the letter, Klobuchar asked the agencies to establish a similar cross-platform task force to monitor and remove content that targets voters with misinformation. Sophisticated disinformation campaigns like the one the Russian Internet Research Agency implemented in 2016 use linked accounts between platforms to reach wide audiences. Because of these tactics, experts agree that a cross-platform solution is necessary to counter and prevent influence campaigns before they gain traction.

“I write to urge you to establish a joint task force to combat election interference and the spread of misinformation. Intelligence officials have confirmed that our elections remain a target,” Klobuchar wrote. “Recently, the Director of National Intelligence warned that ahead of the upcoming elections foreign adversaries, ‘will use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships, and shape policy outcomes in the United States.’ These disinformation campaigns are designed to divide Americans and mislead voters.”

“When adversaries are conducting such strategically planned and implemented operations, relying on a single platform to take unilateral action by removing content is not effective. To stop the spread of these campaigns, content must be targeted and dealt with across platforms and this can only be achieved through collaboration and information-sharing.”

“Targeted social media campaigns do not exist in a vacuum. We must take action to stop this from happening again. As Congress works to pass legislation to increase transparency and accountability online, there is action that your agencies can take right now… A task force combining the efforts of your agencies, tech companies, and state and local election officials would be an effective way to combat the spread of disinformation.”

Klobuchar has led the fight to increase online transparency and protect our elections. In October 2017, Klobuchar and Warner introduced the Honest Ads Act with the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to help prevent foreign interference in future elections and improve the transparency of online political advertisements. Russia attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election by buying and placing political ads on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. The content and purchaser(s) of those online advertisements are a mystery to the public because of outdated laws that have failed to keep up with evolving technology. The Honest Ads Act would prevent foreign actors from influencing our elections by ensuring that political ads sold online are covered by the same rules as ads sold on TV, radio, and satellite.

In March 2018, Klobuchar and Senator Lankford (R-OK) introduced the Secure Elections Act with Senator Warner and Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Richard Burr (R-NC), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) to strengthen election cybersecurity in America and protect against foreign interference in future elections. The Secure Elections Act streamlines cybersecurity information-sharing between federal intelligence entities and state election agencies; provides security clearances to state election officials; promotes the use of paper ballots and post-election audits; and provides resources for states to strengthen our election infrastructure. The bipartisan legislation is cosponsored by Senators Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Cyber Subcommittee, and Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Angus King (I-ME).

Full text of the letter can be found below:

Dear Director Wray and Acting-Secretary McAleenan:

I write to urge you to establish a joint task force to combat election interference and the spread of misinformation. 

Intelligence officials have confirmed that our elections remain a target. Recently, the Director of National Intelligence warned that ahead of the upcoming elections foreign adversaries, “will use online influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine U.S. alliances and partnerships and shape policy outcomes in the United States." These disinformation campaigns are designed to divide Americans and mislead voters. The 2016 and 2018 elections illustrated how foreign agents manipulated platforms to spread disinformation.

Between 2013 and 2018, Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) operated Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter campaigns that reached tens of millions of users in the United States. Those accounts spread divisive content meant to pit Americans against each other, and they transmitted misleading information designed to disenfranchise minority groups. Over 30 million users, between 2015 and 2017, shared the IRA’s Facebook and Instagram posts. The IRA’s strategy linked multiple social media accounts that had a significant number of followers and maintained personas on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. In order to try to legitimize their accounts, the IRA created websites and linked those to their social media accounts, and in some cases purchased Google ads to promote those associated websites. These accounts promoted each other’s posts across platforms. While platforms took steps to remove fake accounts, the campaigns continued on other platforms and also resurfaced on platforms that had removed them.

Targeted social media campaigns do not exist in a vacuum. We must take action to stop this from happening again. As Congress works to pass legislation to increase online transparency and accountability, there is action that your agencies can take right now. When adversaries are conducting such strategically planned and implemented operations, relying on a single platform to take unilateral action by removing content is not effective. To stop the spread of these campaigns, content must be targeted and dealt with across platforms and this can only be achieved through collaboration and information-sharing.

A task force combining the efforts of your agencies, tech companies, state and local election officials, with additional support from journalists and independent researchers would be an effective way to combat the spread of disinformation. The public and private sector must approach disinformation campaigns in the same collaborative way that they work to remove illegal content such as child pornography and content from terrorist organizations. The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism proved extremely successful as there is significantly less terrorist content available across social media websites, particularly from the Islamic State, al-Qaida, and Boko Haram. Given these successes, it seems that a cross-platform task force related to elections and disinformation is both achievable and quintessential.

I know you have taken many steps to combat election interference. I commend those actions, but there is still work to do. To better understand how you are preparing for the next elections and your work to counter disinformation, I respectfully ask you to provide us with the following information:

  1. What are your detailed plans to prevent and counter disinformation campaigns ahead of the next elections?
  2. Please provide details assessing the feasibility of a task force. What necessary steps must be taken to establishment a task force and how quickly can it be created?
  3. How are you working to coordinate your existing efforts with social media companies?
  4. Some of the major tech companies have recently set up regional operations and hired additional staff to handle election related concerns for regions with upcoming elections, particularly in Europe and Asia. How are your agencies taking similar action with respect to our elections and communication with state election officials?
  5. The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) recently wrote to Facebook and Twitter urging further engagement with state and local election officials. What steps can you take to help increase communication and cooperation between your agencies and social media companies to ensure that state and local election officials – the people on the front lines of our elections – have the information that they need?

Sincerely,

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