A series of controversial and racially charged statements that Maine Gov. Paul LePage uttered in 2016 and 2017 became fodder for Russian operatives who posted on fake Facebook accounts in attempts to sow discord with U.S. voters.

The posts on separate accounts appeared to both attack LePage and praise him for comments the Republican made about black and Hispanic drug dealers, and in support of President Trump’s position that “both sides” were to blame in a violent clash between white nationalists and counter-protesters last summer.

The posts, one of which included video clips of LePage and appeared on a Facebook page that has since been discontinued by the social media giant, were referenced Wednesday during a hearing before the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, disclosed that LePage had been the subject of the operatives as she questioned Facebook Vice President and General Counsel Colin Stretch, who appeared before the committee. Both Collins and Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent, serve on the panel, which does most of its work behind closed doors. The committee is investigating Russian meddling in U.S. elections in 2016 and has been exploring how the Russians exploited social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to influence American voters, making them think they were reading the sentiments of actual U.S. citizens.

Speaking to Stretch, Collins said the posts about LePage – including two that attacked him as a racist and one that praised him as a patriot – were examples of the far-reaching extent of Russian interference.

“And there were other posts that involved lower-level officials in the state of Maine that we found as well,” Collins said. “The Russians continue to push this kind of divisive rhetoric to this very day.

“So my question to you is, what are you as American companies doing to effectively counter unpaid content posted by the Russians that is clearly designed to specifically polarize and anger the American people?” Collins asked Stretch. “And I would argue that you have a special obligation here given your reach in American society and the fact that you are patriotic American companies.”

LePage’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

EXPLOITING DIVISIONS OVER RACE

The Senate committee’s hearing underscored the breadth of Russian efforts on social media to influence public opinion and social relations in the U.S., particularly by exploiting divisions and tensions over topics related to race.

Facebook previously had disclosed that content generated by a Russian internet agency potentially reached as many as 126 million users. The company said pages created by Russia’s Internet Research Agency generated 80,000 posts on 120 pages between January 2015 and August 2017. The number of possible views reached into the millions after people liked the posts and shared them, the Associated Press reported.

Collins described the posts that were placed on the Russian Facebook page “Williams and Kalvin” in August 2016. The page was purported to belong to a pair of African-American video bloggers who supported Trump. They also ran a YouTube account that was later discontinued by Google.

The Williams and Kalvin accounts endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential run and featured multiple attacks on Democrat Hillary Clinton, with posts that included sexually explicit language and suggestions that she and former President Bill Clinton were racists.

Racism also was the focus of the Facebook account’s posts on LePage.

Collins told the committee: “There’s a video of comments made by Maine’s governor from that same month. And the post in part says the following: ‘LePage called up white people to kill blacks. After this statement we can clearly see what kind of people serve in American government. White racist supremacy, that’s for sure. The only way to avoid mass killings of black people is to fire LePage and all who have the same racist beliefs from American government.’ ”

LEPAGE STILL A SUBJECT AFTER ELECTION

She said the third post on a different Russian-backed Facebook page, titled “Being Patriotic,” praised LePage for comments he made after the clash in August between protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a car plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19. LePage backed Trump in blaming “both sides” after the violence.

Although LePage condemned the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters, he also said that those countering the protests of white nationalists and neo-Nazis, who were demonstrating against the removal of a statue of Confederate Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee, were “equally as bad.”

The governor likened the removal of the Confederate memorials to removing memorials to victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and suggested he would order police in Maine to use lethal force to break up large protests.

At the hearing, Collins emphasized the point that LePage, who is term-limited and can’t run for re-election to the governor’s office, was still being targeted only a few months ago.

“And the posts are just three among 80,000 that reveal the Russian playbook of playing both sides off against each other and of sowing discord and division with inflammatory rhetoric,” she said.

Stretch, the Facebook executive, said he agreed that Facebook had a special responsibility.

“We value the trust that users place in our services,” he said. “And when they show up to connect with friends and family and to discuss issues, they need to know that the discourse they see is authentic. What is so painful about this type of content is that it exploits truly and passionately held views and then inflames them to create more discord and more distrust.”

He said Facebook was “investing much more heavily in authenticity. We believe that one of the cornerstones of Facebook is that users are known by their real names. And so that creates a level of authenticity in the discourse that users can trust when they come to the platform.”

Stretch said the type of posts that Collins referred to eroded trust and is “contrary to everything we stand for as a company. As Americans, it’s particularly painful because it is so exploitative of the investment in our society.”

King, during a conference call later Wednesday, said Russian interference in U.S. elections was ongoing and likely to continue into 2018 and 2020. He said the U.S. needs to be more forceful in its response to Russia and other foreign governments when they try to meddle in elections.

KING: NO PRICE PAID FOR CYBERATTACKS

“They need to know there is a price to be paid,” King said. “Right now, it’s a freebie. They need to know they are going to get whacked back, but right now they can send a cyberattack and there is no response. They are still at this right now and they need to know they are going to pay a price.”

He said Americans need to learn to be more discerning consumers of information, and that the U.S. education system should focus on using technology judiciously when collecting information. King has long been an advocate of expanding access to technology, including his efforts in 2000 to bring Maine its first public school laptop computer program. He said a hallmark of the program then was “digital citizenship,” and that it should be reaffirmed today as consumers access a growing stream of information on smartphones and computers.

“These devices are fantastic, but students need to know they can be misused and used to mislead you,” King said.

He said people also should trust their instincts, and that when he reads something in a Facebook feed or online that “doesn’t sound logical or truthful, it probably isn’t.”

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

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