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Senate Intelligence Committee Meets With Experts On Election Interference Through Social Media

Manuel Balce Ceneta
AP Photo

It’s one thing to sanction Russia or other nations for attempting to interfere in democratic elections. But how do you educate the American electorate to recognize misinformation spread on social media? 

That was one of the questions asked of a panel of experts Wednesday before a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

According to expert testimony, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent by several nations, including Russia, to influence elections and public policy in other nations. There are also efforts by so-called “non-state players,” such as ISIS. Senators were also told that those foreign efforts have only increased since the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and that the reach of those efforts via social media is comparable to that of a big TV network carrying a major sporting event.

Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who serves on the committee, expressed frustration at the seeming inability of the United States to stop these nations from “weaponizing” social media.

“We imposed sanctions on Russia, they seem to have done no good when it comes to this kind of activity,” Collins said.

Maine independent Sen. Angus King said that other countries have successfully countered such propaganda efforts because the general populace recognizes the misinformation for what it is. He suggested a broad education effort to help Americans assess what they see on their social media feeds every day.

“Kids are growing up with these devices, but not necessarily being taught how they can be manipulated by their devices,” said King. “I think there ought to be standardized courses in High School called digital literacy.”

Laura Rosenberger, Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, told King that some demographic groups may be more susceptible to this kind of campaign.

“Older populations who are not growing up with technology may in some situations be more vulnerable to manipulation by this kind of advocacy,” said Rosenberger.

The Committee asked the panel of experts for more detailed recommendations on how to deter these efforts, and how to help Americans tell fact from political propaganda. The committee plans future hearings on the issue, and several committee members say the hearings could lead to legislation.