The link above is to the source article in question; it contains a video of Senator Mark Warner, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The quote which appears to have sparked the sensational headline is by him, as follows:
First, let me address Warner’s claim to be a former ‘tech guy’. The Wikipedia article of him writes that he was an investor in at least two mobile phone companies, and co-founded Capital Cellular Corporation. Him investing in and being the co-founder of mobile phone companies does not, in anyway, make him an authority figure on home computing or networking, the major fields at hand.
With that out of the way, let me explain what the ‘botnets’ mentioned by Warner are. A botnet is any number of Internet-connected devices running what are known as ‘bots’. A bot is a program or application that runs repetitive, automated tasks, also known as scripts, over the Internet. Examples of potential tasks for bots would be spamming voting systems, DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks (essentially, loading a web page multiple times in an attempt to overload the server hosting it), leaving comments or sending messages en masse (spam), or, in the case of a non-malicious task used by search engines like Google, web crawling (the process of fetching and analysing URLs to index them and allow them to appear as search results).
Botnets, as a typically widely dispersed network of computers, are the means of distribution, often using their geographic differences to confuse the protocols in place to prevent spamming by a single IP address or geographic location. This can be incredibly effective at overloading web servers or posting fake comments.
Warning states that Russia has nearly a thousand Internet ‘trolls’ in its possession; this is absolutely believable, as Russia has utilised a PR firm to leave comments in support of Russia in articles and videos related to the Ukrainian crisis, as I mentioned earlier. However, Warner goes on to state that not the trolls, but the botnets were the author of news articles:
This is nonsensical; I can only assume he misspoke, intending to state that the trolls authored the articles, and circulated them as comments or posts and distributed them en masse via botnets. As I stated earlier, bots are built for repetitive, typically simple tasks; they by definition are not advanced AI, and thus not able to generate coherent text in any language. Continuing from Warner’s quote, he goes on to state, somewhat clumsily, that he has been informed (it is not stated in the quote or article by whom) that they may have been targeting specific areas, in this case, swing states.
The way he phrases this statement makes it quite unclear to me exactly what he means; he does not discuss means of distribution (e.g., a social media website such as Facebook or video sharing platform such as YouTube), nor does he discuss how any geographical targeting may have taken place. Such targeting would not be possible through Facebook or YouTube unless the sites themselves were compromised; as I stated in our discussion, it is simply not possible unless a site is compromised to force posts to be seen by users or to otherwise tamper with the content delivered to them. In order to see posts on Facebook, one must be friends with or have liked the person/page that posted, or be friends with someone who has liked the post in question. The only two means of distribution that could be effectively distributed with a botnet and targeted to recipients based on geographic location could be SMS text messaging (the geographic location is within the area code of phone numbers) or email (the geographic location, unless obvious from the email server domain, would have to be obtained through other means, likely crawling).
I question Warner’s competency regarding the subject at hand. I was able to find another article, located here: http://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/19/inside-russias-social-media-war-on-america.html
It mirrors Warner’s quote as follows:
The statement about Google trends piqued my interest; if this were true, it would indeed be evidence of such targeting. However, if one looks at the Google trends results (which you can do here), you’ll find that the term ‘what is pizzagate’ and ‘#pizzagate’ both are much more popular on average in rural areas than in urban areas, far from the claims of disproportionate representation. Unless I’m missing somehow missing something, this article is quite misleading. Of course, as I’m not a Senator, I’m not gifted enough to participate in the hearings, but I remain unimpressed by the evidence made available to me. If there’s anything substantial about this that I’ve missed, please let me know.