The Senate Intelligence Committee is expected to release two new reports on Monday which detail the scope of the Russian disinformation efforts on social media to impact Americans during the 2016 presidential campaign, CNN reports. The reports indicate the scale of the meddling belies the claim that it was just a few Facebook ads and sought to divide Americans while prompting them to action.
Drafts of commissioned reports by New Knowledge, a Texas cybersecurity company, and Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika were obtained by several media outlets, including NBC News, and provide a sweeping look at the sophisticated Russian disinformation campaign across all social media platforms, with Russian trolls behind usernames that appeared to belong to Americans on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Much of the data, obtained by researchers as they combed through information handed over to the committee by social media companies, has not been previously released.
Researchers examined the activities of the IRA, Internet Research Agency, a troll farm linked to the Kremlin. The IRA was run by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who is a close associate of Putin. He and 12 Russian nationals were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February 2018. Researchers looked at “10 million tweets, 116,000 Instagram posts, 61,000 Facebook posts and 1,000 videos” posted by IRA, CNN reports.
Per the Washington Post, the report covers IRA’s activities on social media several years prior to 2016 and up to mid-2017 but does not contain information about the 2018 midterm elections.
The reports are clear about the intent of the Russian propaganda campaign – to help Donald Trump get elected, and later support his presidency, and harm Hillary Clinton’s chances by using targeted messaging to impact various sub-groups of American society, the Washington Post reports.
“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” the report says. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”Washington Post
Facebook groups with names such as “Being Patriotic” and “Heart of Texas,” targeted conservatives on gun rights, immigration, and conspiracy theories while other groups aimed messaging at liberals intended to disseminate false information about voting and diminish faith in the electoral process. African Americans were particularly singled out, although many others were also targeted: Vets, Christians, Southerners, Muslims, Latinos, and homosexuals.
While these other groups were targeted with a couple Instagram accounts or Facebook pages, Black Americans were targeted with 30 Facebook pages out of the 81 that the Senate knew about. According to the New York Times, the IRA also created dozens of websites with names like “blackmattersus.com, blacktivist.info, blacktolive.org and blacksoul.us”. On YouTube, Russian linked channels were called “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive” and focused on police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. A Russian Instagram account called @blackstagram had over 300,000 followers.
Only seven of the 81 Facebook pages were aimed at liberals. Those pages promoted Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein while deriding Hillary Clinton. They urged voters to stay home or vote for Jill Stein. Whether the Russian voter suppression campaign was effective is impossible to say, but the Times notes that African American turnout in the 2016 presidential election declined for the first time in 20 years.
The New Knowledge report does not explain the Russian interest in the black community but notes it is similar to Soviet propaganda that stirred racial conflict decades ago. One of the authors of the report, Renee DiResta points out that the IRA “leveraged pre-existing, legitimate grievances wherever they could.” When the Black Lives Matters movement produced a counter movement for law enforcement, the Russians simultaneously pushed Blue Lives Matter content.
The IRA posts displayed “a nuanced and deep knowledge of American culture, media, and influencers in each community the IRA targeted,” and a fluency in “American trolling culture.” For example, the Alt Right Pepe the Frog memes targeted youth but not older Republican voters.
The reports also find that the Russian “Army of Jesus” Instagram account, which started out promoting memes about the Muppets before eventually sharing memes associating Jesus with the Trump campaign and Satan with Hillary Clinton’s, offered free counseling via a help line for people with sexual addiction, CNN reports. The New Knowledge report expresses concern that the information gathered on the help line could have been used to blackmail callers, saying, “Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability — usually a secret that would inspire shame or cause personal or financial harm if exposed — is a timeless espionage practice”.
The Internet Research Agency also set up 44 accounts with more than 600,000 followers on Twitter and Instagram impersonating US local media and pushed bogus articles, according to NBC News.
The New Knowledge report states that the propaganda effort “intended to reinforce tribalism, to polarize and divide, and to normalize points of view strategically advantageous to the Russian government on everything from social issues to political candidates.”
“This newly released data demonstrates how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology, and how the IRA actively worked to erode trust in our democratic institutions,” said Senate Committee on Intelligence chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.
Committee vice chair Sen. Mark Warner, D.-Va., said, “These attacks against our country were much more comprehensive, calculating and widespread than previously revealed. This should stand as a wakeup call to us all that none of us are immune from this threat, and it is time to get serious in addressing this challenge.”NBC News
Per the New York Times, the New Knowledge report states that after the election, there were 70 posts on Instagram and Facebook by the IRA bent on mocking the idea that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election: “You’ve lost and don’t know what to do? Just blame it on Russian hackers.” Per NBC, the Kremlin has promoted a narrative on social media that the special counsel investigation is corrupt, calling news stories about it a “weird conspiracy” pushed by “liberal crybabies.”
Russian social media propaganda is ongoing, particularly on Instagram – they currently are pushing support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian interests in the Syrian conflict.