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No, Republicans Did Not Expose Extensive Effort By Russia To Fuel Pipeline Opposition

A “staff report” from Republicans on the United States House Science, Space, and Technology Committee offers little evidence to prove allegations of Russian efforts to influence U.S. energy markets through “social media propaganda” to incite pipeline protests.

Nonetheless, the report, pushed by Republican chairman Representative Lamar Smith, went virtually unquestioned when it was covered by U.S. media.

What the report reveals are several Twitter and Instagram posts that Republicans claim were posted by “Russian agents” linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the troll farm which has become a focus of narratives that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

The report recycles unsubstantiated news reporting that strongly suggested the Russian government was behind anti-fracking activism in the U.S. It contends these posts and tweets demonstrate 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.”

“Between 2015 and 2017, there were an estimated 9,097 Russian posts or tweets regarding U.S. energy policy or a current energy event on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram,” according to the report. “Between 2015 and 2017, there were an estimated 4,334 IRA accounts across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.”

To understand how these numbers are incredibly minuscule, there are about 95 million posts to Instagram per day and 800 million or more users, as of September 2017. About 500,000 comments, 293,000 status updates, and 136,000 photos are posted to Facebook daily. There are over 2 billion active users on Facebook. On Twitter, about 500 million or more tweets are posted each day. There are 330 million active monthly users.

House Republicans did not break down the number of IRA accounts by platform. But if the 4,334 accounts were all Twitter accounts, it would mean the number of active Russian accounts represented less than 0.0013 percent of Twitter users. That percentage would be much smaller for Facebook and Instagram.

As for reported posts and tweets, because Republicans are pulling from contents that appeared between 2015 and 2017, they are essentially revealing an average of 3,000 or so posts and tweets appeared each year.

What is 3,000 out of the 95 million posts to Instagram? What is 3,000 out of the hundreds of thousands of comments and updates to Facebook? What is 3,000 out of 500 million or more tweets?

These are smaller than microscopic numbers. They barely can be said to represent a broad influence campaign by Russia to undermine U.S. fossil fuel industries and incite opposition to American “energy independence.”

The “Russian tweets” are not even disinformation. They mostly appear to be messages containing advocacy from Senator Bernie Sanders, presidential candidate in the 2016 election, and his supporters. For example:

These tweets reference the health impact of natural gas fracking. They mention the link between earthquakes and fracking. They note political efforts to ban fracking through state ballot initiatives. What they do not do is promote disinformation, such as falsehoods about the fossil fuel industry.

The report continues a blatant agenda by Republicans to discredit climate activism against oil and gas pipelines. It even argues Russians are trying to make “useful idiots” of “unwitting environmental groups and activists in furtherance of its energy influence operations.”

In July 2017, Smith and Republican Representative Randy Weber urged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to “investigate whether the Kremlin [was] bankrolling green campaigns against the fracking technology that helped the U.S. overtake Russia in gas production.”

But as POLITICO noted, “Allegations have circulated for years that Moscow has sought to discourage European countries from developing their own natural gas supplies as an alternative to Russian fuel. And conservatives have sought to extend those concerns to the U.S.—though there’s little but innuendo to base them on.”

A surge in activism against pipeline projects, especially as the impacts of climate change intensify, has brought pressure to fossil fuel industry interests. Smith is one of the industry’s most ardent defenders. He even publicly contends climate change is still subject to debate when it is settled science.

An Inside Climate News report details how the fossil fuel industry is a major contributor to science committee members. It donated $8 million from 2006 to 2016, making it the leading source of “industry political action committee money.” The oil and gas industry  is one of Smith’s biggest contributors, “with $764,000 in donations over the course of his career in Congress.”

Smith frequently alleges charges of “secret science” against government agencies that seek to regulate coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, and energy pollution in general. He engages in the very kind of efforts to provoke discord and disruption that the House science committee report condemns. It is all to manufacture doubt in order to tie up policy deliberations in debate so they do not affect companies’ profits.

While this report is clearly rubbish, Democrats have not said anything to challenge the allegations. Perhaps, this is because they are fully invested in the narrative that Russia is meddling in all parts of American discourse on social media.

Smith invokes the bipartisan consensus on “Russian manipulation.” Democratic Senator Ben Cardin recently published a report that stated, “According to NATO officials, Russian intelligence agencies also reportedly provide covert support to European environmental groups to campaign against fracking for natural gas, thereby keeping the EU more dependent on Russian supplies. A study by the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies reports that the Russian government has invested $95 million in NGOs that seek to persuade EU governments to end shale gas exploration.”

During a tinePublic speech in 2014, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton accused “phony environmental groups” that she believes are funded by the Russians of being responsible for the opposition to oil pipelines and natural gas fracking. “I’m a big environmentalist, but these were funded by the Russians to stand against any effort, oh that pipeline, that fracking, that whatever will be a problem for you, and a lot of the money supporting that message was coming from Russia.”

Much of the notion among conservatives that U.S. climate activism is funded by Russia stems from a report by a front group, the Environmental Policy Alliance, operated by Berman & Co., which is run by Rick Berman.

Berman is known for attacks against Mothers Against Drunk Driving. He also has defended Big Tobacco from anti-smoking campaigns. He previously boasted, “If the oil and gas industry wants to prevent its opponents from slowing its efforts to drill in more places, it must be prepared to employ tactics like digging up embarrassing tidbits about environmentalists and liberal celebrities” and urged industry executives “to exploit emotions like fear, greed and anger and turn them against the environmental groups.”

Part of Berman’s efforts to exploit emotions involved accusing U.S. environmental organization of accepting money from the Sea Change Foundation, which allegedly accepted funds from a Bermuda-based company called Klein Limited with executives tied to Russian oil and gas companies.

“We double-check confirmed that the origin of the funds we’re getting from Sea Change is through a donor, not from Russia,” Melinda Pierce, Sierra Club’s legislative director, declared. “It’s a private U.S. citizen who cares about climate change and has invested in the kind of work that the Sierra Club does to move us off dirty energy to clean energy.”

This campaign to smear U.S. environmental organizations as agents of the Russian oil and gas industry was picked up by Republicans. It influenced a 2014 report, “The Chain of Environmental Command: How a Club of Billionaires and Their Foundations Control the Environmental Movement and Obama’s EPA.”

Back then, it was innuendo and unsubstantiated claims intended to help the industry defend itself against pipeline activists. It remains industry-driven propaganda.

The only difference now is that the current political climate embraces a bipartisan consensus that Russians will stop at nothing to sow discord. Democrats do not see conservative political action committees and right-wing industry front groups as responsible for political turmoil over issues mired in contentious debate. They see Russians, and even if they do not deny the reality of climate change, that leaves U.S. policy vulnerable to actions that are aimed at protecting fossil fuel companies and drowning out protest from citizens concerned about climate change.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."