STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
With the midterm elections approaching, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned on Fox News this week that Russia is trying to meddle again.
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REX TILLERSON: I think it's important we just continue to say to Russia, look, if you think we don't see what you're doing, we do see it, and you need to stop.
INSKEEP: Tillerson's boss, President Trump, has downplayed Russian interference in the 2016 election and said that Russia's president, quote, "means it" when he denies meddling. Other officials say Russia did interfere and that its methods have evolved. NPR's Tim Mak went behind the scenes with a group tracking the latest tactics.
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SEAN HANNITY: This makes Watergate like stealing a Snickers bar from a drugstore.
SARA CARTER: Absolutely, and...
TIM MAK, BYLINE: That's Sean Hannity, host of a popular Fox News show, talking about the Nunes memo. It's a document prepared by GOP members of the House intelligence committee that President Trump says vindicates him in ongoing investigations. As the debate over whether to release the memo seized Congress, an initiative monitoring Russian influence operations noticed a sharp uptick in the number of automated Twitter bots pushing the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag.
BRET SCHAFER: ...At a level we have not seen with any other topic.
MAK: That's Bret Schafer, an analyst for Hamilton 68, a bipartisan project backed by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Schafer says #ReleaseTheMemo was an instance of Russian-linked networks trying to erode faith in American institutions. Hamilton 68 is led by an unlikely pair - Laura Rosenberger...
LAURA ROSENBERGER: I was Hillary Clinton's foreign policy adviser during her 2016 presidential campaign, and before that I worked...
MAK: ...And Jamie Fly.
JAMIE FLY: I was Marco Rubio's foreign policy adviser in the Senate and worked with him as his adviser during his presidential campaign.
MAK: Starting six months ago, the project identified and monitored 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations. Here's Fly discussing the primary purpose of these networks.
FLY: These are not networks that are necessarily pushing always traditional propaganda. A lot of it is actually just trying to rip apart Americans, to sow chaos within our political system, to pit Americans of both parties against each other.
MAK: The Hamilton 68 project saw a lot of Kremlin-linked activity on recent controversies like NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, the Charlottesville protests and the immigration debate swirling around DACA. Here's Rosenberger.
ROSENBERGER: We have now realized that an adversary has discovered significant vulnerabilities that can be exploited, and we need to really wrestle with taking steps to make sure that those vulnerabilities can't be exploited and that the real potential of, you know, social media platforms can be sort of maximized.
MAK: But the Russian influence networks are now doing more than just creating chaos. They are pushing Russian propaganda to Americans using intriguing techniques.
SCHAFER: Oftentimes we see topics that really have no importance to Moscow or any of their interests. They're just shared and - as a way of gaining an audience.
MAK: Schafer said he noticed the trend when he saw a number of Russian-linked accounts start tweeting about #MondayMotivation and #WednesdayWisdom popular hashtags used by actual Americans on Twitter. They were mixed in with content about Syria and Ukraine, two countries where Russia is involved with military interventions. It is, in essence, a Russian social media marketing technique using trending topics to get eyeballs on their core message.
SCHAFER: If they just started shouting about Syria or Ukraine, less people would see it and would be less effective.
MAK: Senator Mark Warner is the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. Addressing the fact that there are still no serious efforts to combat these influence networks, he is pessimistic.
MARK WARNER: This is really an ongoing national security issue, and I don't think we've come up with a legislative or policy solution yet that fully gets it right.
MAK: Talking to Fox News this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged that Russia's methods are evolving.
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TILLERSON: The point is, if it's their intention to interfere, they're going find ways to do that, and...
MAK: And, he added, it's going to be difficult to stop. Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.
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