Hillary does some shady stuff with polls – oh, that’s okay, we’ll just look the other way. Trump wins an election because people voted for him – hmmm, some news stories spread by conservative news sites should be investigated. How could that man win?
By Peter Stone and Greg Gordon
Federal investigators are examining whether far-right news sites played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories — some fictional — that favored Donald Trump’s presidential bid, two people familiar with the inquiry say.
Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as “bots,” to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.
The bots’ end products were largely millions of Twitter and Facebook posts carrying links to stories on conservative internet sites such as Breitbart News and InfoWars, as well as on the Kremlin-backed RT News and Sputnik News, the sources said. Some of the stories were false or mixed fact and fiction, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bot attacks are part of an FBI-led investigation into a multifaceted Russian operation to influence last year’s elections.
Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.
The investigation of the bot-engineered traffic, which appears to be in its early stages, is being driven by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, whose inquiries rarely result in criminal charges and whose main task has been to reconstruct the nature of the Kremlin’s cyber attack and determine ways to prevent another.
An FBI spokesman declined to comment on the inquiry into the use of bots.
Russia-generated bots are one piece of a cyber puzzle that counterintelligence agents have sought to solve for nearly a year to determine the extent of the Moscow government’s electronic broadside.
“This may be one of the most highly impactful information operations in the history of intelligence,” said one former U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Bureau director James Comey confirmed Monday at a House Intelligence Committee hearing what long has been reported: t`hat the FBI is investigating possible links between individuals in the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian campaign to influence the election and whether there was any coordination between the two.
The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, one of multiple congressional panels examining Russia’s intervention, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that there was “circumstantial evidence of collusion.” There also is “direct evidence . . . of deception, and that’s where we begin the investigation,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California.
U.S. intelligence agencies charged in January that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the offensive, in which cyber operatives also hacked tens of thousands of emails from Democratic National Committee staff, Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta and other Democrats.
A top priority of investigators is to determine who delivered those hacked emails to WikiLeaks, a London-based transparency site that published them online, the sources said. News stories about the emails embarrassed Clinton at key points in the campaign. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has denied that the Russian government was the source of the email dump.
As for the bots, they carried links not only to news stories but also to Democratic emails posted on WikiLeaks, especially those hacked from Podesta and made public in October, said Philip Howard, a professor at the Oxford University Internet Institute who has researched the bot attacks.
Howard said that, as an example, bots had spread links to fictional stories that accused Clinton of involvement in running a child-sex ring in the basement of a Washington pizza parlor. The posts inspired a North Carolina man to drive to Washington and fire an assault weapon in the restaurant, according to police reports.
Howard’s study of bot-generated Twitter traffic during last fall’s Trump-Clinton campaign debates showed that bot messages favorable to Trump significantly outnumbered those sympathetic to Clinton.