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Watts, in Senate testimony in March (Photo: Susan Walsh / AP)

A former FBI agent says that Russia was using fake news and automated bots on Twitter and Facebook to manipulate American opinion all through 2014 in something of a dry run before its on-line escalation in the U.S. presidential campaign two years later. Clint Watts, a former special agent with the FBI who will testify this afternoon in a Senate subcommittee, calls the 2014 activity "capabilities development."

Why it matters: Watts' assertions highlight Russian activities substantially earlier than the tech companies have so far disclosed. The issue of Russia's manipulation of the 2016 election has reached a new level this week with special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of two former Trump campaign officials, and the coming testimony by Google, Facebook and Twitter officials on Russia's use of their platforms in the campaign.

Watts tells Axios that he has no evidence that Russia attempted to manipulate the 2014 midterm elections. Instead, he said Russia was initially attempting to steer American opinion on issues like Syria. But early in 2015 and on into 2016, he said, the bots began to get into American political issues, like stirring up a rumor that a planned U.S. military exercise in Texas, called Jade Helm, was actually a plot to take over the state.

No one — not the government nor the companies — took the actions seriously because they did not seem important. They also did not violate the platforms' terms of service. "They were a little naive," Watts said. "They and the US government didn't think they were having any impact."

Go deeper

47 mins ago - Technology
Column / Tech Agenda

The new digital extortion

Shoshana Gordon/Axios

If you run a hospital, a bank, a utility or a city, chances are you'll be hit with a ransomware attack. Given the choice between losing your precious data or paying up, chances are you'll pay.

Why it matters: Paying the hackers is the clear short-term answer for most organizations hit with these devastating attacks, but it's a long-term societal disaster, encouraging hackers to continue their lucrative extortion schemes.

1 hour ago - Health

CDC mask guidance sparks confusion, questions

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The CDC's surprise guidance last week freeing the fully vaccinated to go maskless sowed plenty of concerns across the country— even earning the "Saturday Night Live" treatment for all the questions it spurred.

Why it matters: With plenty of Americans still unvaccinated — and without any good way to confirm who has been vaccinated — some experts worry this could put many at increased risk.

Updated 3 hours ago - World

In photos: Israel-Hamas aerial bombardments enter second week

A ball of fire and a plume of smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli forces shell the Palestinian enclave, early on May 17. Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images

Israel and Hamas continued aerial bombardments into Monday morning, as fighting entered a second week.

Why it matters: The worst violence in the region since 2014 has resulted in the deaths of 197 people in Gaza, ruled by Hamas, and 10 in Israel. 58 Palestinian children and two Israeli children are among those killed since the aerial exchanges began on May 10, Reuters notes.

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