New report shows how Russia sought to ‘deceive and influence’ the fight over fracking

Targeting both environmentalist and pro-drilling crowds, fake accounts pushed disinformation across multiple platforms.

A new report from Congress presents evidence that Russia targeted both sides of the energy debate. (CREDIT: GETTY / JOE SOHM)
A new report from Congress presents evidence that Russia targeted both sides of the energy debate. (CREDIT: GETTY / JOE SOHM)

The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), issued a 21-page report Thursday on Russian attempts to inflame the domestic energy debate via fake social media accounts.

The report details many of the memes, posts, and topics covered by fake Russian accounts, and found that some 4 percent of the tweets linked to fake Russian accounts focused on energy-related material — a noteworthy segment, considering 8 percent of the fake Russian tweets thus far identified were related to the 2016 election.

However, much of the material in the report is a retread of earlier reporting. Likewise, the report offers no new information on potential Russian funding for environmental groups — a claim that has been floated the past few years, including by a former NATO chief and Hillary Clinton.

To be fair to the report’s authors, the overall goal of the report isn’t solely to convince others that Russia sought to target only environmentalists, done in the hopes of continuing Russia’s stranglehold on European gas markets. Rather, the committee wrote that the report is intended to “show Americans the broad nature of Russia’s meddling and to reveal Russia’s attempts to deceive and influence the American public, especially as related to domestic energy issues.”

Much as with other topics, including targeting supporters of both Donald Trump and Jill Stein, the fake Russian social media operations targeted pro- and anti-fracking contingents alike. Two of the three most popular fake Russian Facebook pages are featured in the report: “Blacktivist” (388,000 followers before it was removed, more than the official Black Lives Matter account) posted anti-Dakota Access Pipeline material, while “Heart of Texas” (254,000 followers before it was removed, more than either the official Texas Democrat or Texas GOP pages) posted material calling for increased oil drilling.

Some of the pages featured in the report — especially those cited as evidence of Russian support for anti-fracking measures — weren’t especially popular. The “Born Liberal” page, which the report highlights numerous times, only had about 11,000 followers before it was taken down. Another anti-drilling page, “Native Americans United,” had about 33,000 followers on Instagram, but a pro-drilling account, “Mericanfury,” had nearly 90,000.

As it is, the report doesn’t necessarily offer any new evidence of Russian support for actual anti-fracking groups, nor does it add to Smith’s previous questions about relations between Russian funds, American environmental groups, and Bermuda-based shell companies. Additionally, it doesn’t provide any new insight into the $95 million Russia has reportedly sent to anti-fracking NGOs lobbying European governments — a claim mentioned in passing in the January report from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) on Russia’s assault on American democracy, which itself ran over 200 pages.

And, of course, any number of anti-fracking groups and efforts are entirely grassroots, and don’t rely on any foreign funding.

But the report does offer a comprehensive look at how fake Russian accounts sought to target specific policy debates, inflaming both sides along the way. Given that Republicans have thus far been far more reticent than Democrats in addressing Russia’s interference efforts — particularly as it pertains to fake social media accounts — the report may help fortify a bipartisan push-back. Better late than never.