Russia’s “Propaganda War” On US Social Media Is Ongoing, New Reports Say

Outside researchers provide the deepest look yet at Russian efforts to influence American politics in reports released by the Senate Intelligence Committee Monday.

WASHINGTON — Russian efforts to interfere in American politics were more pervasive on Instagram and other social media platforms than previously known and showed a clear preference for Donald Trump during the last presidential election, according to a pair of new reports prepared for the Senate.

Third-party researchers completed two reports for the Senate Intelligence Committee, which released them on Monday. The documents provide the most complete picture to date of the years-long campaign by the Internet Research Agency — a Kremlin-connected troll farm indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in February — to sow divisions in American society, spread disinformation, and manipulate US voters through social media.

The reports were based largely on data provided to Congress by Facebook, Twitter, and Alphabet, which owns Google and YouTube, and question whether the companies were completely forthcoming with Congress about foreign influence on their services. Lawmakers, including members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have previously accused the companies of failing to fully cooperate with congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Some of those lawmakers have urged Congress to pass legislation to regulate social media, prompting the companies to take some steps to try increase transparency and curb the effects of malicious foreign actors on their platforms.

“[The IRA] infiltrated communities with intention of staying there for a very long time,” said Renee DiResta, research director at New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm behind one of the reports. “That’s the challenge here. These tools were built for connection, but they’re being used by hostile intel services to get in contact with vulnerable Americans.”

The New Knowledge report, which says it’s the first comprehensive outside analysis of the impact of social media on the election that hasn’t been done by the companies themselves, also accuses the companies of doing the bare minimum in working with Senate investigators.

“None of the platforms (Twitter, Facebook, and Alphabet) appears to have turned over complete sets of related data to [the committee],” the report read. “Some of what was turned over was in PDF form; other data sets contained extensive duplicates. Each lacked core components that would have provided a fuller and more actionable picture.” A second report, authored by the University of Oxford and Graphika, said that “Google’s data contribution was by far the most limited in context and least comprehensive of the three.”

Still, the New Knowledge report, titled “The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency,” says the data given to the committee “clearly illustrates that for approximately five years, Russia has waged a propaganda war against American citizens, manipulating social media narratives to influence American culture and politics.” That war, designed to undermine American democratic institutions, targeted more than a dozen divisive American themes, such as immigration, gun rights, and race, and spanned several social media platforms, the report found.

“As we've said all along, Congress and the intelligence community are best placed to use the information we and others provide to determine the political motivations of actors like the Internet Research Agency,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. Twitter echoed that sentiment in its own statement, noting that the company had “made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service.” A spokesperson for Google and YouTube did not return a request for comment.

The IRA’s efforts to support Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign began early in the Republican primaries, the New Knowledge report says. “The IRA had a very clear bias for then-candidate Trump’s that spanned from early in the campaign and throughout the data set,” the report states. Moreover, a “substantial portion of political content articulated anti-Hillary Clinton sentiments among both Right and Left-leaning IRA-created communities.”

The New Knowledge study takes Facebook to task for comments made by some executives following the 2016 election that attempted to diminish the IRA's work as just “a few hundred thousand dollars of ads.” The power of the IRA's work wasn't in paid advertising, according to the report, but in unpaid organic content posted across multiple platforms. The data set provided to the Senate included 10.4 million tweets from 3,841 Twitter accounts; 1,100 YouTube videos across 17 account channels; 116,000 Instagram posts across 133 accounts; and 61,500 unique Facebook posts from 81 pages.

In all, there were 77 million engagements from users on Facebook, 187 million engagements on Instagram, and 73 million engagements on original content on Twitter.

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, “was a significant front in the IRA’s influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in Congressional testimony,” the report says. Moreover, the report’s authors assessed that “Instagram was perhaps the most effective platform for the Internet Research Agency” and that it “is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis.”

The report says that the “most prolific IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted Black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing Black audiences and recruiting Black Americans as assets.” The IRA also spread narratives related to voter suppression and secessionist movements, the report found.

“Active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms.”

Other lesser-known platforms were also targeted by the IRA, the report says. “Evidence provided by these companies to [the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence] ties the IRA operation to widespread activity on other popular social platforms including Vine, Gab, Meetup, VKontakte, and LiveJournal,” the report found. “The popular game Pokémon Go was incorporated into the operation, illustrating the fluid, evolving, and innovative tactical approach the IRA leveraged to interfere in US politics and culture.”

DiResta also provided BuzzFeed News with evidence that the IRA may have been running its own merchandise sites with products such as custom T-shirts that were advertised through its Instagram accounts. Featuring contentious political messages, the apparel may have been a source of revenue for the troll farm — though the researchers lacked any specific sales data — or could have been used to gather personal information including names, emails, and, potentially, payment information from unaware shoppers. One piece of the data from Instagram shows that at least one of the IRA’s accounts was promoting the sale of female sex toys in April 2017 on the popular image-sharing site.

“Active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms” and continued well after the 2016 presidential election, the report says. Ironically, among the memes shared by the IRA following Trump's November 2016 victory were images of Mark Zuckerberg associated with stories where he said it was a “pretty crazy idea” that Facebook had any meaningful impact on the election.

Details of the University of Oxford and Graphika report, titled “The IRA and Political Polarization in the United States, 2015-2017,” were first reported Sunday by the Washington Post. “The IRA adapted existing techniques from digital advertising to spread disinformation and propaganda by creating and managing advertising campaigns on multiple platforms, often making use of false personas or imitating activist groups,” the report says. The fake accounts’ presence on several platforms, including PayPal for donations, likely boosted their perceived credibility.

“Between 2013 and 2018, the IRA’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter campaigns reached tens of millions of users in the United States,” the report found. “Over 30 million users, between 2015 and 2017, shared the IRA’s Facebook and Instagram posts with their friends and family, liking, reacting to, and commenting on them along the way.” Often, the agency took advantage of significant news events — everything from primary debates to Hillary Clinton’s 2015 appearance on Saturday Night Live — to boost activity, which included advertising and organic activity, with the latter being “most far reaching,” the report adds.

The IRA’s activity didn’t stop once it was exposed, the report says. “The highest peak of IRA ad volume on Facebook is in April 2017—the month of the Syrian missile strike, the use of the Mother of All Bombs on ISIS tunnels in eastern Afghanistan, and the release of the tax reform plan,” the report found. “IRA posts on Instagram and Facebook increased substantially after the election, with Instagram seeing the greatest increase in IRA activity.”

“On Facebook, the five most shared and the five most liked posts focused on divisive issues, with pro-gun ownership content, anti-immigration content pitting immigrants against veterans, content decrying police violence against African Americans, and content that was anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, anti-Obama, and pro-Trump,” the report says. “On Twitter, of the five most-retweeted IRA accounts, four focused on targeting African Americans.”

Similar to the New Knowledge report, this report found that the IRA paid particular attention to black American communities, encouraging them to “boycott elections or follow the wrong voting procedures in 2016.” The agency targeted black Americans with ads on Facebook and Instagram “to divert their political energy away from established political institutions by preying on anger with structural inequalities faced by African Americans, including police violence, poverty, and disproportionate levels of incarceration.”

More recently, the IRA’s efforts have included urging “Mexican American and Hispanic voters to distrust US institutions.” They’ve also included “encouraging extreme right-wing voters to be more confrontational; and spreading sensationalist, conspiratorial, and other forms of junk political news and misinformation to voters across the political spectrum.” Other groups, including conservatives, Muslim Americans, and LGBT voters, were also targeted.

“Differential messaging to each of these target groups was designed to push and pull them in different ways,” the report says. “What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically, Donald Trump. 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. While the IRA strategy was a long-term one, it is clear that activity between 2015 and 2016 was designed to benefit President Trump’s campaign.”

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chair of the committee, used the reports to renew calls to pass legislation to regulate social media. “These reports demonstrate the extent to which the Russians exploited the fault lines of our society to divide Americans in an attempt to undermine and manipulate our democracy,” Warner said in a statement. “These attacks against our country were much more comprehensive, calculating and widespread than previously revealed. This should stand as a wake up call to us all that none of us are immune from this threat, and it is time to get serious in addressing this challenge.”

North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the chair of the committee, didn’t go as far, calling instead for more “information sharing” between tech companies and outside researchers, but stated that the reports show “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.”

“Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped,” Burr added.

The committee has not yet said what it will do with the reports, but noted that it doesn’t necessarily endorse the reports’ findings and that it is working on its own report about social media manipulation.

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