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Majority report: With liars targeting us all, news business relies on discriminating Americans

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate agree: On Facebook and other social media, subtle Russian lies help weaken America, and many readers seldom see real news.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), left, and Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.)
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.), left, and Vice Chair Mark Warner (D-Va.)Read moreTom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newsco

They want us to hate each other.

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s new report on Russian social-media interference — the parts they haven’t blacked out and censored — is sobering. Read it here.

You could easily draw simple conclusions:

Facebook and other social media enable piles of garbage stories to push out careful reporting and research.

Russia worked hard to get President Donald Trump elected and defeat other Republicans and Democrats in 2016. (The bipartisan report doesn’t say this is Trump’s fault.)

Left unsaid: U.S. politicians, corporations, and individuals are already snowing us with piles of self-serving propaganda that are well-produced and tough to distinguish from independent news-gathering. But at least some of that is identified and claimed by its creators.

My own embarrassed take: The news business has failed to persuade Americans to read information critically, identifying and evaluating the source:

Committee chief Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) and his fellow senators, after digging through social media data with help from law enforcement and college researchers, show how our American news industry — the professional reporters charged with knowing our neighbors and neighborhoods, plus our editors, publishers, online-producers, strategists, and investors — have been out-Facebooked, out-Twittered, out-Instagrammed, out-marketed, and outproduced, by a bunch of liars-for-hire in a declining nation far away.

It didn’t matter so much back in the pre-Internet 1980s, when freedom of the press belonged to the person who owned one, and news organizations paid for reporting by selling ads to department stores, hiring offices and others, leaving news content to speak for itself.

Now that advertising is bought and sold much more cheaply on the Internet — and we are back to relying on paid subscriptions — it’s hard to convince a lot of people that news is worth what you pay for it — when Facebook, Google, and other media repost so much of our work for free, and, when so much information looks similar, if you don’t check carefully.

Russia’s Internet Research Agency, headed by investor Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been indicted in the District of Columbia as an unregistered foreign agent and sanctioned by the Treasury Department for illegal election interference, is among the Russian groups that worked closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin to flood Americans with provocative lies, “despite Moscow’s denials,” the senators write.

Its hundreds of employees, “masquerading as Americans, used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social-media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States," including articles sourced to no-name American-sounding news sources that don’t employ reporters and exist only in a room in Moscow.

“This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government’s covert support of Russia’s favorite candidate in the U.S. presidential election," referring to Donald Trump, according to the report.

They didn’t just target Democrat Hillary Clinton, a Russia critic.

They first went after Trump’s fellow Republicans who also criticized Russian corruption and suppression of democratic dissent: “During the presidential primaries, for example, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were targeted and denigrated, as was Jeb Bush.”

Russia’s goals in the general election were "to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process [and] denigrate Secretary Clinton.” Russian social media “was overtly and almost invariably supportive of then-candidate Trump.”

That campaign fit into an older, “sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign” developed by Russia’s former Communist government “to sow discord in American politics and society” by telling damaging lies about figures as disparate as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan, or lying “that the AIDS virus was manufactured by the United States at a military facility at Fort Detrick in Maryland.”

It’s easier to spread lies now thanks to social media, with its anonymity and lack of oversight.

Russians focused on posts that would purposely inflame “socially divisive issues — such as race, immigration and Second Amendment [gun] rights … to stoke anger.”

Among the most popular made-up stories: Pope Francis’ alleged endorsement of Trump for president, and “WikiLeaks’ confirmation of Hillary Clinton’s weapons sales to ISIS."

Once Trump won, the Russians changed focus: They accelerated efforts to inflame Democratic-leaning citizens against the president, creating further disgust with American politics.

Russia’s top targets weren’t racist white people. They put more effort into sowing doubts among African Americans. Racial issues were the “preferred target of the information warfare campaign designed to divide the country” by showing that Democrats weren’t really pro-black. The Russian operatives set up Facebook, Instagram, and Google YouTube accounts with such names as “Blacktivist” to attack Democrats for not sufficiently supporting the NFL “kneeling protests” or opposing “police brutality."

Lies were “70% more likely to be retweeted than accurate news,” and six times faster by Twitter.

What’s the solution? Critics on the right and left have pushed to force the big communications tech companies to limit what they can and can’t post.

But who sets the rules limiting free expression, and who enforces them as content proliferates? Regulated news media is subject to government influence. Un-American.

The Inquirer’s publisher and other news groups are lobbying for the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would allow news providers to gang up on Facebook and other online media to negotiate revenue-sharing, so they can’t so easily profit from our hard work without paying for it.

Lobbyists want to rewrite Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which would force social media to act more like news organizations by letting outraged targets of lying stories sue more easily for damages from online material. That could force Facebook to weed its overgrown garden — or make citizens and news professionals easier for the powerful to intimidate.

Just last week a bill introduced by Sens. Mark R. Warner (D., Va.) and Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) would encourage competition to big social media by requiring the largest platforms to make user data portable so users can move to other platforms. It would also allow users to hire a trusted third party to manage privacy.

One thing for sure: The news business needs to do a better job listening and making clear to readers and nonreaders what we do — how we know, and how we improve.

Americans aren’t going to agree on how to fix all our challenges. But with good information from people who make a living asking tough questions, we can at least identify and measure our common problems and weigh solutions.