Will Corporate America Start Using Russian Troll Tactics?

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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The last presidential election could create a playbook for 21st-century conflict in politics and in boardrooms, says Sen. Mark Warner.

As investigators paint a clearer picture of Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election, one lawmaker worries the strategies used to spread misinformation online will only become more prevalent in the years ahead.

“Conflict in the 21st century will be less about tanks, guns and rockets and much more about cyberattacks, misinformation and disinformation,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., at an Axios News Shapers event on Thursday.

As vice chairman of the Senate committee leading the Russia investigation, Warner has pressed social media platforms become more transparent about who is generating content on their sites. Tech companies have been more forthcoming with lawmakers in recent months, he said, but Facebook or Twitter have yet to expose the full extent of Russia’s activity.

“I don’t believe they put appropriate assets behind investigating,” he said. “I would like to have a higher confidence that they are cooperating.”

In its investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee revealed that Russian trolls used bots and fake accounts to spread misinformation and expose potentially millions of users to propaganda. Lawmakers also traced more than 3,000 paid political ads on Facebook, Twitter and Google to Russian groups.

If the situation goes unchecked, Warner worries the strategies used during the presidential race could proliferate beyond political campaigns and into the corporate world.

“You’ve got a model where you can take any story, no matter how out there, and get it onto virtually all of your newsfeeds,” he said. “I’ve been told about companies and individuals in [Silicon Valley] that are basically going to copy the Russian playbook and are going to start creating American-based firms for corporate warfare using these exact tools.”

In October, Warner and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced the Honest Ads Act, which would force social media and other web platforms to disclose who paid for political ads posted on their sites. Similar requirements already apply to broadcast, radio and print outlets, and would ensure Americans know who and where their online is coming from, he said.

While Warner said he expected the Intelligence Committee’s Nov. 1 hearing with social media companies to drum up bipartisan enthusiasm for the bill, the support has been slow to come. Eight Democrats have since signed onto the bill, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., remains the only Republican cosponsor.

Creating a framework to protect Americans from online threats and invasions of privacy is becoming increasingly important as firms from more technologically repressive countries like China begin entering the U.S. marketplace, Warner said. The government’s ban on Kaspersky software has already underscored the reality of this threat, he said.

“I think we have to be concerned whether the rules that these firms operate under in China—where the government has a lot more access to the data and information—can end up infiltrating our American system,” he said.