Russian Trolls Are Flooding Social Media With Messages Meant To Increase Tensions In U.S.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The aftermath of a school shooting in Florida, NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem and the 2016 presidential election - these have all been targets of Russian internet trolls. Just hours after that Florida shooting last week, Russian bots got busy on social media posting pro-gun-rights messages, also posting pro-gun-control messages. It's the latest example of a phenomenon documented in special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment released on Friday of Russian trolls and bots working to deepen divisions in U.S. society. Oklahoma Republican Senator James Lankford has been talking about this since the NFL national anthem controversy last fall.
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JAMES LANKFORD: They were taking both sides of the argument this past weekend and pushing them out from their troll farms as much as they could to try to just raise the noise level in America and to make a big issue seem like an even bigger issue as they're trying to push divisiveness in the country.
KELLY: Senator Lankford predicted then that we would continue to see this happening, and we have. Senator Lankford sits on the intelligence committee, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.
LANKFORD: Glad to be able to be with you today.
KELLY: I want to follow on something we just heard you say there in that tape from last fall. You said that the troll farms - Russian troll farms are working to try to just raise the noise level. Is that the goal? Do we know what Russia wants?
LANKFORD: What Russia seems to want is divisiveness everywhere else, and they try to get a competitive advantage by destabilizing every country around them. They've done it for years, and they've finally come here.
KELLY: And they continue to be able to continue doing it. Despite efforts to look at what happened in 2016 and prevent that going forward in 2018, what specific steps do you want social media companies to take?
LANKFORD: So the first thing that they can do is be able to identify these Russian trolls and these bots. They have started that process. They've been aggressive about putting some algorithms in place to deal with it, and that is very helpful to everyone. When you have a conversation, we have a lot of areas to disagree on. And that is fine. We're not going to agree on every issue, but we don't need Russian interference in the middle of our disagreement.
KELLY: On the other hand, this is continuing even within these last several days in the aftermath of the Florida shooting. Does that discourage you. Or to put it another way, is there a certain level of this that Americans maybe just need to get used to?
LANKFORD: So we will get used to it over the years. And one of the other things that can be of greatest benefit is identifying what it looks like and where it comes from in the past so people can see it. When you come through the grocery store line and you see the tabloids that are there and you see the headlines, you understand they're just tabloids, and they're just putting out sensational information. And you don't treated the same as you do a Wall Street Journal or New York Times or other periodical that is a reputable periodical. We need to be able to gain that ability with what we're seeing online and identify that, hey, that's just Russian noise, and we can blow it off.
KELLY: We've been talking about steps you would like to see social media companies take. What about steps the government should take? And let me start at the top. We mentioned the Robert Mueller indictment came out on Friday, charged 13 Russians and three companies for interfering in the 2016 election. President Trump has not come out following that and condemned Russian interference. Does that bother you?
LANKFORD: Well, I would certainly hope that he would do that when all the information is out and the indictments are done because there's no question that the Russians worked to interfere in our election. They were...
KELLY: And this is a 37-page indictment that does lay out a lot of facts and specific details. Do you have any insight into why President Trump has not come out and condemned?
LANKFORD: You know, I don't know. I have heard President Trump speak about his frustration that some in the media try to make it appear that the only reason he won the election is because of Russian interference. I don't believe that's so. Mueller is not saying that. No one is trying to accuse of any votes being shifted. But there's also a reality.
They were engaged in the election as far back as 2014. They were actively working against Hillary Clinton, but they were working for obviously Trump. They're working for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. They were working for Bernie Sanders. They were doing everything they could to be able to raise volume and to be able to increase any kind of reach of anyone that they thought was going to be divisive.
KELLY: Senator, President Trump has also tweeted a couple of things that could be read as critical of the Russia probes that are underway, including the one that you're working on with the Senate Intelligence Committee. He tweeted over the weekend about, quote, "all the committee hearings and investigations." And then he added - and excuse my language - but he added, quote, "they are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart, America." He seems to be suggesting the Russian probe should end. What's your response?
LANKFORD: Well, I would hope that's not so. I think the Russia probe should end when the - all the evidence is in and is done and we can wrap up and give a complete report 'cause this benefits the future of the country. Again, the intelligence services saw some of these things as far back as 2014. There wasn't a reaction from the previous administration. There wasn't an aggressive confrontation with the Russians on this behind the scenes and to say knock it off other than just a verbal statement. We need to learn from that and to be able to know, what do we need to do to protect our election security in the future? How can we confront this in the days ahead, and what lessons can be learned? That can only be done once we complete the report and get it all out there in the public.
KELLY: Senator Lankford, thanks very much.
LANKFORD: You bet. Glad to be able to be with you.
KELLY: James Lankford - Republican from Oklahoma and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.