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Russian Meddling on Social Media Targeted U.S. Energy Industry, Report Says

The Wall Street Journal

A Russian-backed propaganda group used social media in an attempt to disrupt the U.S. energy industry and influence energy policy, according to a new congressional staff report reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Unlike other Russian campaigns to stir political unrest in the U.S., this effort by the tech-savvy Internet Research Agency is characterized as mostly one-sided, agitating against American fossil-fuel production in a way lawmakers believe was aimed at benefiting Russia, the world’s largest oil producer.

Starting in 2015, workers at the IRA posted photos and messages on Facebook , FB -1.33%Instagram and Twitter TWTR 1.19% encouraging protests against pipeline construction in the U.S., calling for the abandonment of fossil fuels and stoking American controversy around climate change, according to the report by the majority staff on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

It isn’t clear how much influence, if any, the campaign had on U.S. energy policy. Many of the posts were shared by only a handful of followers, the report says. But the messages came at a critical time for Russia, after oil and gas prices began to plummet due to booming output in the U.S. that posed a major threat to one of Russia’s most important industries.

“To the extent that America produces more energy of any kind, it guarantees Russia more competition,” Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee, said in an interview. “Russia wants to reduce competition from the United States.”

The Russian embassy in Washington declined to comment on the new meddling allegations. In response to questions, it sent prior comments from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denying claims that Russians used social media to create discord in the U.S.

The new report was written by Republican staff on the House Science Committee. It is based on data supplied by Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc., which have faced criticism from lawmakers over the role of their social networks in facilitating the spread of misinformation and divisive content.

Rep. Smith said Facebook and Twitter cooperated with the committee’s requests. Both companies have said they took down all IRA accounts last year because they violated their policies.

People close to Facebook and Twitter confirmed they shared data with the House Science Committee. A Twitter spokeswoman added that the IRA’s tweets represented an “extremely small” portion of the broader energy discussion on Twitter.

The IRA opened its opinion-influencing unit in 2014 with the goal of spreading distrust in the U.S., according to a federal indictment secured by special counsel Robert Mueller in mid-February.

The IRA in 2015 started targeting U.S. energy policy in its posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, according to the report. Around that time, the U.S. energy boom began putting the U.S. and Russia in fierce competition. U.S. production had burst out of a long decline as companies learned how to tap shale rock for oil and natural gas.

Between 2015 and 2017, the IRA posted more than 9,000 times about U.S. energy policy or an energy event, according to the report. More than 4% of all IRA tweets were related to energy or environmental issues, compared with the 8% of the IRA tweets related to the U.S. election, the report says.

“If true, this is extremely troubling, and not just from the perspective of the pipeline industry,” said Don Santa, leader of the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, which represents interstate gas-pipeline companies. “It would illustrate the pervasiveness of Russia’s attempt to sabotage our economy and energy security and undermine trust in our government.”

Russia has responded to the growth of American oil production with an unprecedented deal to cut its oil production in coordination with other big exporters, an effort to cap supply and stabilize plunging prices. President Donald Trump seized on the issue early in his tenure and promised policies to boost output and exports even further as a bulwark against Russia.

Pipelines were allegedly one of the primary targets of the Russian actors. Many of the posts encouraged protests of pipeline construction, including the Dakota Access Pipeline, Keystone XL and Colonial pipelines, the report says.

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