RUS­SIA SO­CIAL ME­DIA IN­FLU­ENCE EF­FORTS ON­GO­ING, RE­PORT SAYS

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Rus­sia’s sweep­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign on U.S. so­cial me­dia was more far­reach­ing 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 re­ports.

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 ba­sis.”

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 in­ter­na­tional events.

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 Bashar As­sad.

— 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.

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