Lawmakers are expressing concerns following a new House committee report detailing how Russians attempted to used social media platforms to manipulate U.S. energy markets.
It’s the first acknowledgment from politicians that such websites were used to influence U.S. affairs outside political and social discourse.
“I’m shocked,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said on Thursday after the House Science Committee released its findings.
“Russia is continuing to extend its digital tentacles into every aspect of American life, it is absolutely chilling and profoundly dangerous to our future,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Blumenthal is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has examined Russian meddling efforts on social media.
“We are in effect inviting them to a social media buffet of options to interfere with our Democracy and undermine our way of life without adequate response,” he said.
The Science committee report found that energy related posts made up 4 percent of all of Kremlin-linked social media account posts, a number that it believes is significant given that 8 percent of social media posts by the Kremlin were found to be about the election.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Science’s chairman, said the results shed light on how Russian actors are using social media to influence Americans in significant economic and policy areas.
“As far as this goes, it’s significant than politics,” Smith said in a press call with reporters. “It could go beyond energy, and it certainly is an attack on the United States—to try to prevent us from enacting policies that benefit the American people.”
The posts from the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) accounts, an organization established by the Russian government that engages in online influence operations, targeted pipelines, fossil fuels and climate change by inserting comments into debates about their legitimacy.
In posts, the Russian accounts have used both conservative and liberal talking points, denouncing fracking and also criticizing global warming, referring to it in some cases as a “liberal hoax.”
The report said it was a clear effort to increase confusion amongst various US energy groups while promoting the Russian point of view, in step with previously known Russian efforts to sow discord on social media.
Russia’s energy success is intrinsically linked to the U.S, a likely cause for the social media behavior.
“The Russian government depends on energy royalties to fund itself. When oil is low their economy is less vibrant,” explained Dr. Michael Webber, an engineering professor and deputy director here at the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute. “If you look at the U.S., the shale boom has led to keeping oil prices down. So anything they can do to slow the development of our energy infrastructure is good for them.”
Smith said the results of the report could just be the tip of the iceberg, and that it’s likely Russia may be trying to exert influence in other policy spheres.
“We only focused on energy policy, there may be attempts by Russian to interfere in other issues, and that would be the jurisdiction of other committees,” Smith said.
Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at Oxford University who has studied how governments use social media to influence public opinion, said that the findings could be an indication that Russians have launched influence campaigns on other key foreign policy issues, such as the race to control shipping lanes in the Arctic and the geopolitical crisis in Syria.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the science committee, said she found the report’s results concerning, especially when it came to climate change.
“It has become apparent that the Russians have been attempting to interfere across our society,” Johnson said in a statement.
However, Johnson equated the committee’s report on Russia’s influence on energy to cherry picking, as Smith and other Republican committee members have refrained from addressing concerns about Russia meddling in U.S. elections.
“Democrats on the Committee have repeatedly asked the chairman to look into this issue and have been ignored. To ignore known meddling in the very foundation of our democracy while focusing solely on Russia’s influence on the U.S. energy market – a market that is currently booming – seems irresponsible at best,” Johnson said.
The report is the latest effort from members of Congress to probe Russian meddling in the U.S. via social media.
At the end of 2017 the Senate and House Intelligence Committees held hearings in which top lawyers from Facebook, Twitter and Google testified on how Russians manipulated their platforms to sow discord around the time of the 2016 presidential election.
In February, the Department of Justice also substantiated concerns of Russian interference, when special counsel Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian companies for interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections.