Russia stoking U.S. racial, social differences ahead of election: sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – American intelligence and security officials on Tuesday will brief Congress about how Russia has been using social media to stoke racial and social differences ahead of this year’s general election, three sources familiar with the presentations said.

Voters arrive to cast their ballots in the Democratic primary election in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., March 10, 2020. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

U.S. government experts will say, in classified briefings to the full U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, that Russian social media efforts are currently more directed at stirring up social divisiveness than promoting particular U.S. presidential candidates, the sources said.

Among specific issues Russian trolls are seeking to exploit are gun control, ethnic group rivalries, tensions between police and local communities, and abortion, the sources said.

On abortion, the United States has evidence that Russian cyber-operatives are using social media to stir up antagonism on both sides of the issue, one of the sources said. One of the Russians’ objectives appeared to be to use disagreements over social issues to stir violence, the source said.

In an unclassified paper outlining broad findings, intelligence agencies said that to date, “we have not identified any activity designed to change vote tallies,” though they remained watchful for “any malicious activities” launched by foreign actors or cybercriminals.

However, the agencies said that already Russian social and state media operations had “taken aim at some of the candidates” from both American political parties, “in part to signal Russia’s unhappiness with policy statements or choices.”

But the agencies said they have “not concluded” that Russia is “aiding any candidate’s re-election or any other candidate’s election.” Nor have they determined that Russia will definitely try to do that in 2020’s U.S. elections.

They also warned that China, Iran and other countries including North Korea and Cuba all have the means, opportunity and potential motives to try to interfere in U.S. elections, and that some of these countries are using social media to “stoke discord” in the United States.

Senior Trump Administration officials participating in the Congressional briefings will include Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolfe, FBI Director Christopher Wray and William Evanina, director of the counter-intelligence agency attached to the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), according to Congressional and administration officials.

The Russian Embassy to the United States did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reporting By Mark Hosenball; additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio

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