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Election Security

Social Media Data Analysis Center Included in Senate’s NDAA

Provision calls for up to $30 million to establish center to track online foreign influence in elections

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said "companies need to devote more resources" to prevent election interference. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

In an attempt to bolster defenses from foreign interference in elections, the Senate passed legislation as part of its annual defense authorization bill to establish a Social Media Data Analysis Center to coordinate and track foreign social media influence operations.

The provision, which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, gives the Director of National Intelligence, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, the authority to use up to $30 million to create a center to analyze data voluntarily shared by the social media companies.

The Senate passed its NDAA in an 86-8 vote. The House is expected to bring its version of the bill to the floor after the July 4 recess.

“Now that the Russian playbook is out in the open for anyone to use, companies need to devote more resources – both in man-hours and in technology – to tackling this problem,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said in an email.

Warner, the ranking member on the Senate Intelligence Committee that advanced the provision, said there has been “some improved effort on the part of the social media companies to identify and remove fraudulent content from foreign-based actors seeking to influence the American political debate” since 2016.

“We should be using every tool in our toolbox” to address the problem, he said.

Under the provisions, the center’s director would be responsible for providing an annual report on the effectiveness of the center to the Director of National Intelligence, Secretary of Defense, and congressional committees with jurisdiction. In addition, the director of the center would be required to report on trends in foreign influence and disinformation operations to the public every quarter.

The bill calls for the intelligence community “determining jointly” with social media companies which data and metadata will be made available for analysis, but William Marcellino, a behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corp., sees competing interests.

The interests of social media companies are commercial, said Marcellino, who co-authored the global policy think tank’s report on social media analysis for the Department of Defense. And while the commercial interests are not illegitimate, he said, they are inherently distinct from the government’s public good commitment.

“Currently, social media platforms are very reluctant to share data,” said Marcellino.

But the relationship between Congress and social media companies may be changing, according to Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel to the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“There is clearly a hunger for the government to do something,” said Levinson-Waldman, noting recent hearings that included social media companies on Capitol Hill.

Levinson-Waldman said the social media companies have “very high” incentive to cooperate on the proposed center since they are facing increased regulation overseas.

“The social media companies are extremely eager to escape actual government regulation,” Levinson-Waldman said.

Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. did not respond to requests for comment.

While the government and social media companies look to agree on terms of what data and metadata will be available for analysis, privacy issues are a source of concern.

“Using domestic or U.S. citizens’ data appropriately is the biggest single challenge,” said Marcellino.

“The provision says that privacy protections will need to be developed,” said Levinson-Waldman, “but I think we would need to see those with a lot of specificity before anything got up and running.”

The proposed center is part of an effort to counter what Congress called Russia’s “weaponization of social media platforms.”

The Russia-based Internet Research Agency created fictitious social media accounts that targeted minority groups and spread misinformation in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election.

There is currently no similar detailed center outlined in the House version of the bill, but Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and represents a district that covers much of Silicon Valley, said Thursday in a brief interview at the Capitol that the idea of such a center “makes sense” and it’s possible it could be included in the final measure set to be negotiated by House and Senate lawmakers.

If the provision becomes law, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats would have until March 1, 2020, to issue a report to Congress on what funding will be necessary and what additional laws will be needed for the establishment of the center.

The Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence did not comment.