The FBI plans to alert U.S. companies and the public about efforts by Russia or other nations to use disinformation and social media manipulation to interfere in upcoming elections, while being careful not to upset free speech and constitutional rights, a top law enforcement official said.
The direction that the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s “foreign influence” task force is heading could dramatically reshape the relationship between government and social media companies in order to address vulnerabilities that enabled Russia to meddle in the 2016 election.
“We’ve been reluctant in some instances to share the amount of information of what we know about what’s happening,” said Jeffrey Tricoli, a top FBI official heading the task force. “You can’t stay with the same strategy if you think there needs to be changes. So going forward there’s going to be opportunities for us to share information in better ways.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray announced late last year that the task force had been created. But almost everything about it has been secretive to date. Tricoli provided the first extensive public comments about it during an FBI conference in New York Wednesday co-sponsored by Fordham University.
The intention, Tricoli said, is to shine a light on election interference efforts while leaving it up to companies and the public to make their own decisions about what to do with disinformation, fake news or contaminated online content.
“We’re not here to be the thought police. That’s obviously, clearly, not something that we would ever want to get into,” Tricoli said. “What’s important is the understanding of what’s behind the veil. Our responsibility in the government is to bring forth that visibility and that transparency to this activity. That’s what we believe is the best way forward.”
The task force’s work comes as President Donald Trump continues to rail against a probe into Russia’s meddling in the election and whether his campaign or officials close to him colluded in that effort. Trump, in a news conference Wednesday with Norway’s prime minister, again called the accusations a “witch hunt.”
“There has been no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians, or Trump and Russians, no collusion,” Trump said. “For 11 months they’ve had this phony cloud over this administration, over our government. And it has hurt our government.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how active the task force will be in trying to prevent interference in this year’s Congressional midterm elections. Social media companies such as Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. have said they belatedly realized the extent of Russian espionage and influence operations on their networks during the 2016 election and are now taking more active steps to address the probe.
The FBI’s new approach contrasts with how the bureau handled Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. At the time, the bureau didn’t say anything publicly about the meddling — and it wasn’t until about a month before the election that the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a joint statement about Russia’s actions.
The FBI also remained silent until after the election that it was conducting a broad counter intelligence investigation into whether Trump or any of his associates colluded with Russia to interfere in the election.
The relatively new task force is a hybrid that brings together elements of the FBI’s cybersecurity, counter intelligence and criminal expertise, Tricoli said. He said the task force is intentionally designed to reflect the hybrid threat from Russia.
Officials in Russia, including President Vladimir Putin, have repeatedly denied interfering in the U.S. election.
Adversaries like Russia are blending cybersecurity, criminal and counter intelligence operations in order to distort the truth or prevent people from finding what’s true, Tricoli said.
“In that environment, we have to rethink how we do business,” Tricoli said. “The United States may be a little bit new to this game but this is not something that’s new. Our European counterparts have been dealing with this and in some instances been yelling at us that this has been happening for a long, long time.”
The task force is seeking to build partnerships with companies, friendly foreign governments and academic institutions, Tricoli said.
“The big thing for us right now is just to begin the dialogue with those partners,” he said. “We don’t have the mountain of data that I think people tend to think we have on this threat. We do have some pieces of information that I think can help the conversation but a lot of it is working in partnership with them because most of that information is actually housed and owned by them.”