WASHINGTON — Russia’s plot to wield social media sites to divide Americans and aid Donald Trump in the 2016 election was even more massive and sophisticated than previously understood, and efforts to disseminate disruptive messages are ongoing.
Those are the findings of two independent groups of researchers tasked by the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee. The reports, released Monday, concluded that posts from fake Russian accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube led to more than 300 million engagements by Americans between 2015 and 2017.
Among the groups most heavily targeted by the Russians: African-Americans. The researchers found a cross-platform effort to target black Americans, often with memes about police brutality, and later feeding them voter suppression messages. Among the narratives shared with black audiences was a meme “I WON’T VOTE, WILL YOU?” Another said “Everybody SUCKS, We’re Screwed 2016.” Others urged blacks to vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate.
The findings criticized social media companies for publicly minimizing the use of their platforms — and for not sharing key data, such as the many comments generated as well as the posts’ metadata, so they could better judge the impact.
“It appears that the platforms may have misrepresented or evaded in some of their statements to Congress,” researchers from New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company, wrote. “It is unclear whether these answers were the result of faulty or lacking analysis, or a more deliberate evasion.”
Researchers for New Knowledge as well as a second group from the University of Oxford and Graphika, a company that analyzes social networks, pored through more than 10 million Twitter posts from thousands of Russian fake accounts, more than 116,000 posts on Instagram and 61,000 on Facebook and more than 1,000 YouTube videos.
More Attacks Likely
Many of the Russian accounts scrutinized have since been suspended, but researchers found related ones lurking on social media, often dormant but available to be activated again, and predicted more attacks will come in 2020.
Overall, the reports describe a remarkably successful operation with posts seen by much of the U.S. population, and a consistent pattern of seeking to divide Americans, particularly along racial lines, while boosting Trump and hurting Democrat Hillary Clinton. Many of the posts didn’t specifically refer to Trump or Clinton, but the divisive themes were pervasive, researchers found.
“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,” Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said in a statement. “Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped.”
The panel’s top Democrat, Mark Warner of Virginia, said the reports show the attacks “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.”
While the general outlines of the social media attack by Russia’s Internet Research Agency have previously been reported — and outlined in an indictment from Special Counsel Robert Mueller — the two reports released Monday after months of pouring over the posts and analyzing them are the most thorough accounting yet.
Support for Trump started in the early primaries, and aside from some early backing for Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, posts attacked other candidates in the primaries as establishment Republicans. One meme asked whether Florida’s Marco Rubio was “a traitor.” Another painted Ted Cruz of Texas as a “The Trojan Cruz” and “GOP Establishment’s Ruse.”
The Russian accounts also boosted a widely debunked conspiracy theory that Seth Rich, a slain Democratic National Committee staffer — and not Russian hackers — was responsible for the DNC’s emails making their way to Wikileaks in 2016.
The sophisticated effort created networks of pages, including left-leaning pages and right-leaning pages, and sprinkled propaganda in with other content. On left-leaning pages, for example, memes attacking Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, were written to discourage talk of impeachment.
The Russian efforts also pushed enormous amounts of right-leaning content, pushing secessionist movements in Texas and California, and amplified intra-party feuds in both parties.
After the election, numerous posts mocked the idea of Russian interference, and memes targeted Mueller and former FBI Director James Comey. And the trolls migrated much of their attention to Instagram while public attention was focused on Facebook and Twitter.
Memes on Instagram
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook Inc., proved even more engaging for the kind of “memetic warfare” — or calculated use of Internet memes — Russians were engaging in, according to the statistics compiled by the researchers.
The trolls also showed “a nuanced and deep knowledge of American culture, media, and influencers in each community the IRA targeted,” the New Knowledge researchers wrote. “For example, Turning Point USA and Pepe the Frog memes appear among the youthful alt-Right-targeted Memopolis and Angry Eagle Pages but don’t appear on the boomer-conservative focused pages. The IRA was fluent in American trolling culture,” researchers wrote. One gun-related post featured nearly a million shares on Facebook alone.
Russians were also actively recruiting Americans, including “attempts to drive people to the streets for events, attempts to get people to perform jobs, and more insidious attempts to connect with people around very personal challenges.”
They sold merchandise like T-shirts and even organized 81 real-life events, the report found. On at least one occasion, they worked with a real activist behind Black Guns Matter, for which there was also an IRA page.
The activist later tweeted “he thinks the Russian election interference story is a distraction.”