Russia Still Roiling US Politics 12/18 06:23
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Russia's sweeping political disinformation campaign on
U.S. social media was more far-reaching than originally thought, with troll
farms working to discourage black voters and "blur the lines between reality
and fiction" to help elect Donald Trump in 2016, according to reports released
Monday by the Senate intelligence committee.
And the campaign didn't end with Trump's ascent to the White House. Troll
farms are still working to stoke racial and political passions in America at a
time of high political discord.
The two studies are the most comprehensive picture yet of the Russian
interference campaigns on American social media. They add to the portrait
investigators have been building since 2017 on Russia's influence --- though
Trump has equivocated on whether the interference actually happened.
Facebook, Google and Twitter declined to comment on the specifics of the
The reports were compiled by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge and by the
Computational Propaganda Research Project, a study by researchers at the
University of Oxford and Graphika, a social media analysis firm.
The Oxford report details how Russians broke down their messages to
different groups, including discouraging black voters from going to the polls
and stoking anger on the right.
"These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of
the African-American community was to boycott the election and focus on other
issues instead," the researchers wrote.
At the same time, "Messaging to conservative and right-wing voters sought to
do three things: repeat patriotic and anti-immigrant slogans; elicit outrage
with posts about liberal appeasement of 'others' at the expense of US citizens,
and encourage them to vote for Trump."
The report from New Knowledge says there are still some live accounts tied
to the original Internet Research Agency, which was named in an indictment from
special counsel Robert Mueller in February for an expansive social media
campaign intended to influence the 2016 presidential election. Some of the
accounts have a presence on smaller platforms as the major companies have tried
to clean up after the Russian activity was discovered.
"With at least some of the Russian government's goals achieved in the face
of little diplomatic or other pushback, it appears likely that the United
States will continue to face Russian interference for the foreseeable future,"
the researchers wrote.
The New Knowledge report says that none of the social media companies turned
over complete data sets to Congress and some of them "may have misrepresented
or evaded" in testimony about the interference by either intentionally or
unintentionally downplaying the scope of the problem.
The Senate panel has been investigating Russian interference on social media
and beyond for almost two years. Intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr
said in a statement that the data shows how aggressively Russia tried to divide
Americans by race, religion and ideology and erode trust in institutions.
"Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped," said
Burr, a North Carolina Republican.
One major takeaway from both studies is the breadth of Russian interference
that appeared on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook and was not frequently
mentioned when its parent company testified on Capitol Hill. The study says
that as attention was focused on Facebook and Twitter in 2017, the Russians
shifted much of their activity to Instagram.
The New Knowledge study says that there were 187 million engagements with
users on Instagram, while there were 77 million on Facebook.
"Instagram was a significant front in the IRA's influence operation,
something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in
congressional testimony," the researchers wrote. They added that "our
assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing
The Russian activity went far beyond the three tech companies that provided
information, reaching many smaller sites as well. The New Knowledge report
details sophisticated attempts to infiltrate internet games, browser extensions
and music apps. The Russians even used social media to encourage users of the
game Pokemon Go --- which was at peak popularity in the months before the 2016
presidential election --- to use politically divisive usernames, for example.
The report discusses even more unconventional ways that the Russian accounts
attempted to connect with Americans and recruit assets, such as merchandise
with certain messages, specific follower requests, job offers and even help
lines that could encourage people to unknowingly disclose sensitive information
to Russia that could later be used against them.
The Russians' attempts to influence Americans on social media first became
widely public in the fall of 2017. Several months later, Mueller's indictment
laid out a vast, organized Russian effort to sway political opinion. While the
social media companies had already detailed some of the efforts, the indictment
tied actual people to the operation and named 13 Russians responsible.
Also notable is the study's finding that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange
was favorably treated in posts aimed at both left-leaning and right-leaning
users. The New Knowledge report says there were a number of posts expressing
support for Assange and Wikileaks, including several in October 2016 just
before WikiLeaks released hacked emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign.
The Oxford study notes that peaks in Internet Research Agency advertising
and organic activity --- or posts, shares and comments by users --- often
corresponded with important dates on the U.S. calendar, crises and
The researchers from Oxford said that organic postings were much more far
reaching than advertisements, despite Facebook's sole focus on ads when the
company first announced it had been compromised in 2017.
Other findings in the studies:
--- During the week of the presidential election, posts directed to
right-leaning users aimed to generate anger and suspicion and hinted at voter
fraud, while posts targeted to African-Americans largely ignored mentions of
the election until the last minute.
--- Establishment figures of both parties, especially Clinton, were
universally panned. Even a tag targeted to feminists criticized Clinton and
promoted her primary opponent, independent Bernie Sanders;
--- Several posts promoted the Russian agenda in Syria and Syrian President
--- IRA's posts focused on the United States started on Twitter as far back
as 2013, and eventually evolved into the multi-platform strategy.
--- Russian activity on Twitter was less organized around themes like race
or partisanship but more driven by local and current events and made use of
occasional pop culture references.
--- Facebook posts linked to the IRA "reveal a nuanced and deep knowledge of
American culture, media, and influencers in each community the IRA targeted."
Certain memes appeared on pages targeted to younger people but not older
people. "The IRA was fluent in American trolling culture," the researchers say.