As members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Maine’s Susan Collins and Angus King are among those in the forefront of investigating Russian efforts to influence elections in this country. Both say that these efforts are more extensive and intrusive than many understand, and that trolls are already aiming beyond the 2018 midterms.
Republican Susan Collins will not be up for reelection for another two years, but she says that there is clear evidence the Russian operatives are already trying to influence that campaign and will still be trying come 2020.
“I’m absolutely confidant of it,” says Collins. “I would like to think that we could shut this down, but I do not think that is the case.”
A publicly-released database that chronicles the efforts of Russian-sponsored troll accounts lists 261 tweets aimed at Collins last year. But Collins says that doesn’t tell the whole story.
“The count that the Intelligence Committee has come up with is higher by quite a bit than the publicly reported count of false, Russian-generated inflammatory tweets aimed at me,” she says.
Collins has been targeted much more extensively than other Maine political figures. Republican Representative Bruce Poliquin, for example, was targeted by just one tweet, and Democratic Representative Chellie Pingree was not targeted at all on Twitter. Independent Senator Angus King says that what has been publicly released is just a small subset of all of the Russian social media efforts to influence voters in the United States.
“Ahhhh…I have no doubt that they are trying to influence this fall’s election, I don’t know about mine,” King says. “But it certainly is a concern. I mean...it’s a… this is something you have to think of as a candidate now that you didn’t before.”
King says the Committee investigation is showing that while social media can be a powerful tool for candidates to get their messages to voters, it can also be used to attack and distort a candidate’s record and message. He says a particularly disturbing new technique is called “deep fake,” in which a video of a candidate is edited to make them appear to say something different than what they actually said.
“They can alter, they can use my own words in my own voice, but have different words come out of my mouth….now that’s disturbing,” says King.
And very difficult to counter, King says. To respond to an attack ad aired on TV, a candidate can buy his or her own ad to challenge the claims. But on social media, there is no way to know who has seen the fake message. Both Senators say the Committee continues to fully analyze past and current efforts by Russia, and others, to influence U.S. elections. Both say they hope that legislation will be crafted to curb that influence but acknowledge that whatever is passed will not be in time for the fall elections.
Originally published Aug. 15, 2018 4:19 p.m.