Senate intelligence committee leaders have received reports that Russia hired at least 1,000 trolls to spread fake news stories to hurt Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton during the presidential election.
“What really concerns me [are reports] there were upwards of 1,000 paid internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect taking over a series of computers which are then called botnets that can generate news down to specific areas,” said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He appeared Wednesday with GOP intel chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) at a press conference before committee hearings began.
Warner said in the latest case, the paid trolls apparently focused on swing states in an attempt to influence votes there — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — where people were “reading during the waning days of the election that “‘Clinton is sick,’ or ‘Clinton is taking money from whoever for some source’ … fake news.”
Warner said it’s crucial that investigators determine if voting results were actually affected. Each of the three states narrowly fell to Trump.
“An outside foreign adversary effectively sought to hijack the most critical democratic process, the election of a president, and in that process, decided to favor one candidate over another,” Warner said.
Burr said that he and Warner were committed to getting to the bottom of Russian interference in the election. He accused Russia of blatant attempts to also impact elections in Germany and France. “We feel part of our responsibility is to educate the rest of the world,” he said.
By the end of the first day of hearings Thursday, no one had yet testified about the 1,000 trolls, but the investigation is just beginning.
Former FBI agent Clint Watts, now a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, testified that Russian attempts to influence the election started before the party nominees were chosen. Trump’s GOP presidential rival Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) appeared to be a particular target, he said.
“Through the end of 2015 and the start of 2016, the Russian-influenced system began to push themes and messages seeking to influence the result of the presidential election,” Watts said.
“Russian overt media outlets and covert trolls sought to sideline opponents on both sides of the political spectrum with adverse views towards the Kremlin,” he added. “They were in full swing during both the Republican and Democratic primary season, and may have helped sink the hopes of candidates more hostile to Russian interests long before the field narrowed.”
Watts said more details about the targeting of Rubio would be included in his written report to the committee.
He also testified that Trump helped spread fake news by embracing the stories that served the Russian agenda against his opponents.
Watts told the committee to “follow the dead bodies” to learn more, referring to several Russians connected to Kremlin fake news who have died in the past few months.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed allegations of Kremlin interference in the U.S. elections as “fictional, illusory, provocations and lies.”
This article has been updated with more details, including comment from Putin.