New Reports Detail Expansive Russia Disinformation Scheme Targeting U.S.

Dec 17, 2018
Originally published on December 17, 2018 5:33 pm

Two new reports produced for Senate investigators say that Russian influence efforts infected every major social media platform, extensively targeted African-Americans and amounted to what researchers called a "propaganda war against American citizens."

The reports, which were drawn up by private cybersecurity firms on behalf of the Senate intelligence committee, offer the most comprehensive look yet at Russia's online influence operations.

They are based on information provided by the panel and the social media companies themselves.

The reports confirm the U.S. spy agencies' overarching conclusions that Russia's efforts ahead of the 2016 election aimed to sow discord, hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump.

They also echo a warning that U.S. officials have been giving for months: that Moscow's nefarious online activity did not end on Election Day but rather continue to target Americans to this day.

The reports offer new details on the activities of the Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-backed troll farm based in St. Petersburg, Russia, that drove Moscow's online operations.

That entity and 13 of its employees have been charged as part of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Strategy to divide

The data in the reports "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 the committee's Republican chairman, Richard Burr.

The panel's top Democrat, Mark Warner, said the reports indicate that "these attacks against our country were much more comprehensive, calculating and widespread than previously revealed."

One of the reports, compiled by researchers at the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge, says the IRA's most prolific efforts on Facebook and Instagram targeted African-Americans.

"The degree of integration into authentic black community media was not replicated in the otherwise right-leaning or otherwise left-leaning content," the report concludes.

The goal, it says, appears to have been "developing black audiences and recruiting black Americans as assets."

The New Knowledge report also challenges statements from Facebook and Twitter regarding the IRA's efforts to suppress voters.

It says the troll farm had a three-pronged approach on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to suppress voters: malicious misdirection, such as "text-to-vote scams"; candidate support redirection, such as voting for a third party; and turnout depression, such as, "stay at home on Election Day, your vote doesn't matter."

Instagram was a bigger platform than known

The new research also points to the previously underappreciated prominence of the IRA's use of Instagram. It notes that IRA posts on the photo-sharing platform received 187 million engagements, which dwarfed the 76.5 million engagements that IRA posts received on Facebook.

And the study notes that as media coverage in the U.S. zeroed in on the IRA's operations on Facebook and Twitter, the group shifted much of its activities to Instagram.

"Instagram engagement outperformed Facebook, which may indicate its strength as a tool in image-centric memetic (meme) warfare," the report says. "Our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis."

The second report was drawn up by researchers with the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University and the analytical firm Graphika.

It says the IRA's activities targeting the U.S. began on Twitter in 2013 but quickly expanded to a broader effort that included activities on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, among others.

The IRA's efforts, the report says, did not stop after it was called out for its interference in the 2016 election. And it notes that spikes in the IRA's advertising and organic activity match up with important dates in U.S. politics, crises and international events.

Russian influence operatives not only sought to turn up the volume on political controversies online. They also, in some cases, helped organize rallies in the real world at which Americans turned up to protest in person.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two reports out today provide the clearest picture yet of the extent to which Russia went to influence voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The reports focus on a Russian troll factory's use of nearly every major social media platform from Facebook to YouTube. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has combed through the documents and joins us now. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So who exactly authored these reports?

LUCAS: Well, this is the work of private researchers and cybersecurity experts. And what they did is examine the activities of this Russian troll farm that we've talked a lot of bit about. That's the Internet Research Agency or the IRA. This is a Russian-based company that has been charged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Now, the reports are based on data that the social media companies and the Senate Intelligence Committee provided them - important to remember that that committee is investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

CHANG: Right.

LUCAS: It views its role as getting to the bottom of what the Russians did and then explaining that to the American public. That's why we're able to see these reports. That of course stands in contrast to the special counsel's investigation, which is focused on criminal conduct and prosecuting those who broke the law.

CHANG: OK, so we have been talking so much since the election about Russia's manipulation of social media. What do these new reports add that is actually new?

LUCAS: Right, well, first off, what they confirmed bottom line is the big-picture conclusions that the U.S. intelligence community came to, which is that Russia's social media manipulation was designed to sow discord, to divide Americans and to hurt Hillary Clinton and ultimately to help Donald Trump. But they also provide a greater level of detail than we previously had. They show that the IRA built up fake personas across all sorts of social media platforms. That lent them legitimacy. They then used those to target specific audiences. Think of right-wing, anti-immigration folks or some left-leaning groups.

But what's really interesting is the research shows that the Russians specifically targeted African-American communities at a higher rate than any other. And the Russians also pushed a voter suppression narrative to a degree that social media companies themselves have played down.

CHANG: OK, so you say the Russians targeted African-American communities more than any other community. How did they do that?

LUCAS: Well, these efforts were focused on developing an audience and even recruiting assets - so people to act in the real world to, say, stage rallies. Now, one of the reports says that a main message that was pushed to African-American voters was that it was best to sit out the election, to boycott the election; that served their interest.

CHANG: And this is to suppress turnout.

LUCAS: Right. And then one example of a fake persona that was created by the IRA that got a lot of traction is an Instagram account set up with the username blackstagram. And it had more than 300,000 followers.

CHANG: It is worth pointing out that much of the focus up until now has been on Facebook and Twitter. But these researchers are saying that the Russians also use Instagram and other social media platforms, right?

LUCAS: Right. One of the things that these reports made clear is that the Russians leveraged every major social media platform. Instagram had largely stayed under the radar. That's no longer the case. These reports say that Instagram was actually a huge part of Russia's efforts online. For example, one of the reports says that fake Russian content on Facebook received 76.5 million engagements. On Instagram, fake Russian content earned more than two times as many engagements as that.

CHANG: Wow.

LUCAS: And researchers say, importantly, looking ahead, that the Russians have shifted a lot of their activity to Instagram since the election.

CHANG: Which is an important point. The Russians are still using social media to try to influence Americans, right?

LUCAS: That's absolutely right. And it's a really important point to make that Russians continue to use fake accounts on these platforms for nefarious purposes.

CHANG: So you mentioned that the Senate supplied the data these researchers used. Is Congress planning to do anything more to stop Russia or any other country from using social media to influence U.S. voters?

LUCAS: Well, there's certainly been chatter from lawmakers about possible legislation. Social media companies would prefer to deal with this without any sort of legislation, regulation of course. But look. One of the reasons that we are talking about this and this report is out is it puts the public's attention on material online and with the hope that Americans will be more judicious about what they're engaging with online.

CHANG: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.