Russian agents working to undermine America’s fossil fuel industry use Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools to spread propaganda and try to turn U.S. public opinion against domestic energy production, according to a new congressional report.
The report found that between 2015 and 2017, “an estimated 9,097 Russian posts or tweets regarding U.S. energy policy or a current energy event,” such as approval of the Dakota Access oil pipeline, appeared on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
In addition, 4,334 social media accounts connected to a Russian agency that manipulates media platforms spread across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the report from the committee’s majority staff says.
After reviewing documents sought last fall from the American social media companies, investigators with the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology found that Russian agents made a concerted effort to exploit social media platforms with messaging aimed at disrupting U.S. energy markets, the report released Thursday says.
“This report reveals that Russian agents created and spread propaganda on U.S. social media platforms in an obvious attempt to influence the U.S. energy market,” committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a written statement on Russia President Vladimir Putin’s motives.
‘Exploiting’ Social Media
In September, Smith sent letters requesting information from Facebook and Twitter. The committee chairman was building on a previous investigation into allegations of surreptitious Russian government funding of U.S. environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club Foundation, and the League of Conservation Voters Education Fund to spread propaganda against drilling techniques used to extract natural gas.
Smith followed up with letters to Twitter and Facebook the next month, supplying more information about his committee’s findings and thanking them for being responsive.
“The information received from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram shows that Russian agents indeed sought to disrupt U.S. energy markets and influence domestic energy policy by exploiting American social media platforms,” the report says.
These same social media companies were able to link Russian accounts with the Internet Research Agency, based in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Moscow created the agency “for the purpose of deceptively using various social and traditional media platforms to advance Russian propaganda,” the new report says.
“Despite the tag-team efforts of Russian trolls and ‘keep it in the ground’ activists, the reality is American energy dominance is here to stay,” Nick Loris, an economist who specializes in energy issues as a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said in an email. “For six straight years, the U.S. has been the largest producer of petroleum and natural gas hydrocarbons.”
Congressional investigators found that Russian agents concentrated their social media messaging against U.S. pipeline projects and other forms of energy infrastructure. Numerous posts, for example, targeted the Dakota Access oil pipeline with messages that attempted to galvanize anti-pipeline protesters, the report says.
The report reproduces 17 of the Russian posts on social media, including a Facebook post from Nov. 25, 2016, that was shared 497 times, liked 378 times, and drew 293 reactions.
It includes a dark, ominous photo and reads, verbatim: “We’re about to celebrate thanksgiving and tell schoolchildren we made peace w Native Americans while DAPL protestors are being tear gassed.” DAPL apparently stands for Dakota Access Pipeline.
At the same time, the Russian posts “focused on the counternarrative and sought to exploit anti-activist sentiment by propagating content supportive of pipeline construction efforts, illustrating once again the Kremlin’s indiscriminate efforts to cause discord and disruption,” the report says.
Russian posts targeted other pipeline projects, including Sabal Trail, Keystone XL, Colonial, Bayou Bridge, and Enbridge Line 5, according to the House committee’s report.
Other posts cited in the report focused on the debate over climate change. Some connected catastrophic weather conditions with climate change, others said Americans were ignoring signs of climate change.
“Russia benefits from stirring up controversy about U.S. energy production,” Smith said, adding:
U.S. energy exports to European countries are increasing, which means they will have less reason to rely upon Russia for their energy needs. This, in turn, will reduce Russia’s influence on Europe to Russia’s detriment and Europe’s benefit.
That’s why Russian agents attempted to manipulate Americans’ opinions about pipelines, fossil fuels, fracking, and climate change. The American people deserve to know if what they see on social media is the creation of a foreign power seeking to undermine our domestic energy policy.
A spokesman for Twitter said the company had “fully cooperated” with Smith’s committee, including by searching for energy-related tweets from accounts that appeared affiliated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency. In an email to The Daily Signal, the spokesman said:
In our report to Chairman Smith we noted that a small subset (413) of these accounts participated in conversations related to energy, that their total volume of tweets was relatively small (5,594 original tweets, 2,223 retweets), and that these tweets represented an extremely small portion of the broader discussion of energy issues on Twitter.
For example, on one of the most active days, the IRA tweeted about energy issues 81 times total, compared to a total volume of 173,349 energy-related tweets and retweets overall on that day, or approximately five one-hundredths of 1 percent (0.046 percent) of the total conversation.
The Daily Signal also sought comment from Facebook and Instagram, but they did not respond by publication deadline.
Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, told The Daily Signal in a phone interview that Putin and other Russian leaders see U.S. development of fossil fuels as “a threat” and “is acting accordingly.”
“The committee’s report comes just as it was announced that U.S. oil production has hit an all-time high,” Cohen said. “Note that the Kremlin is targeting American oil and gas production, not wind or solar power, which the Russians correctly see as posing no threat to their geopolitical designs.”
In November, American production reached 10.06 million barrels per day, breaking a 47-year record, Heritage’s Loris noted, adding:
By 2019, we will likely surpass Russia as the world’s largest oil producer. The economic and geopolitical benefits are nothing to scoff at. American households and businesses are benefiting from affordable, reliable power.
We’re using our energy dominance as soft power to reduce the ability for Russia to manipulate energy markets for political gain. A few tweets and some posters aren’t going to stop the energy revolution that’s occurring before us.
This report was updated to include Twitter’s response to a request for comment on the House committee’s report.