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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."

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Cold December as safety nets expire

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Safety nets are likely to be yanked from underneath millions of vulnerable Americans in December, as the coronavirus surges.

Why it matters: Those most at risk are depending on one or more relief programs that are set to expire, right as the economic recovery becomes more fragile than it's been in months.

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People wait in line at Food Bank Community Kitchen on Nov. 25 in New York City. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Bank For New York City

America's food banks are sounding the alarm during this unprecedented holiday season.

The big picture: Soup kitchens and charities, usually brimming with holiday volunteers, are getting far less help.

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AstraZeneca CEO: "We need to do an additional study" on COVID vaccine

Photo: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said on Thursday the company is likely to start a new global trial to measure how effective its coronavirus vaccine is, Bloomberg reports.

Why it matters: Following Phase 3 trials, Oxford and AstraZeneca said their vaccine was 90% effective in people who got a half dose followed by a full dose, and 62% effective in people who got two full doses.

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