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Rubio: Foreign Influence Will Be a Part of Political Debates, Not Just Elections

May 15, 2024 | Press Releases

U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Vice Chairman Marco Rubio (R-FL) delivered closing remarks at a hearing on foreign threats to the 2024 elections.

  • “I just know that this is going to get far more complex, and I predict it won’t just be about elections, it will actually become in real-time, it already is, on policy debates that we’re having here. Should we have tariffs? Should we ban TikTok? You name it, on a weekly basis. Whatever the issue is here, I can see [foreign influence] becoming part of it, even in our daily political debates.” – Senator Rubio

Click here for video and read the transcript below:

RUBIO: It’s not easy to protect elections from people that are professional hackers, who are constantly trying to get into everything from water systems to election systems to hospital systems. I’m not in any way diminishing the importance and the difficulty of it. I am pointing out, though, that it’s technical. A red state, a blue state, they’re both going to be equally impacted. They both are fertile ground for hacking, especially when you get down to the congressional and even local levels. 

Foreign malign influence is a lot trickier…. Some of these operators are largely focused on amplifying what are already authentic beliefs in American politics. People already believe these things. They just simply amplify things that people are already saying. So what’s the risk there? If you say that the Iranians or the Russians or the Chinese are amplifying a message, some people take that to mean, “If I believe in something that I’ve stood for for a long time, all of a sudden now I’m a Chinese agent, or now I’m a Russian agent, because I’m actually saying things on the campaign trail.”

Iran proposed helping nationalist groups inside the U.S. Iranian officials have advocated using covert social media to pit extremist groups against each other…. That’s an effort to get Americans to fight and make us look weak internally. In October 2022, Twitter exposed three separate Iranian-based influence networks operating on the platform, generally supporting left-leaning U.S. politicians, including a range of House and Senate candidates. According to industry reports, many exposed accounts espoused pro-Palestinian sentiments. At the same time, they expressed positive sentiments towards progressive candidates. 

Flip to the Russians. The Russians tried to denigrate the Democratic Party before the midterm election and undermine confidence in the election most likely to weaken U.S. support for Ukraine. In particular, they amplified questions about whether U.S. aid to Ukraine would continue if the balance of power in Congress shifted. That’s their intent. There is not that they’re Republicans, but their intent was to denigrate the Democratic Party because it furthered their aim and in the process also began to influence our willingness to continue to be committed to helping Ukraine. 

The Russians are also blaming multiculturalism and leftist ideals for ostensibly driving the U.S. into a crisis. There are a lot of people that actually hold that view, irrespective of what the Russians believe. They’re just amplifying what somebody has probably been saying for 15 years. That doesn’t make that person a Russian agent…. 

Then we assessed that the Cubans attempted to undermine the electoral process of specific U.S. congressional politicians in 2022 that they perceive as hostile. They focused their operations at denigrating specific U.S. candidates in Florida, although in an attempt to shape the impression of other politicians as well, because they view Cuban Americans in Miami as having an outsized influence on U.S. policy with regards to Cuba. They also cultivated members of the U.S. media who held critical views of that member of Congress….

You have the example that I’ve used about the fake AI video. It’s clearly a fake video. What we want to know is, do we have a formalized process to act very quickly to say this thing is fake, even if we can’t attribute it. You don’t need to attribute it to, in the last days of a campaign, at least protect the American people. It has to be done in a way where the other side, who maybe hopes it’s real, doesn’t feel like you’re tipping the scales in favor of your preferred candidate. 

To be blunt, let’s say…somebody comes up with a video that comes out about Biden, and the DNI…says this video is a fake. I can see where people on the Trump side would say, “That’s just because you’re trying to help Biden, it’s probably a real video.” The reverse would be true in a different scenario. It’s a hard thing to do. But someone has to be in charge of coming forward and at least saying it’s fake, even if we can’t attribute it. That’s the obvious question. 

The one I’ve just described about amplifying voices and narratives that are already out there, that’s a lot tougher. I think the most we can say in that regard is: “We know that these countries are doing this. They’re not doing it because they’re Democrats or Republicans. It serves some purpose: influencing Cuba policy, influencing Ukraine policy, making America look chaotic, or getting groups to fight against each other. This is what they’re doing,” and let people make judgments as to how they take these narratives. 

It’s tough. I don’t have an easy answer for how we fix it or what the process should look like in terms of notifying people. I just know that this is going to get far more complex, and I predict it won’t just be about elections it will actually become, in real-time, it already is, on policy debates that we’re having here. Should we have tariffs? Should we ban TikTok? You name it, on a weekly basis. Whatever the issue is here, I can see [foreign influence] becoming part of it, even in our daily political debates. 

We really need to get a handle on it. It’s a tough one, but we really need to, because it’s going to get far worse, far more sophisticated, with many more players. It will pose a grave danger at some point of turning into something that we haven’t fully anticipated. I hope we can continue to work on finding a way forward, because I’m sure, they’ll be talking about this after we’re both gone. This will still be a factor.