A report produced for the US Senate Intelligence Committee and obtained by The New York Times reveals that the extensive and sophisticated Russian influence campaign during the 2016 elections is still active on leading social media platforms.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on December 18, 2018

The report suggests Russian interference was far more widespread than previously believed and sought to inflame existing social divisions within US society.

“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 report says.

The report reveals the IRA targeted African-American voters

The Russian interference campaign was run by a St. Petersburg-based company called the Internet Research Agency (IRA). It is owned by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, an oligarch with close ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Prigozhin and 12 employees of the company were indicted in February 2018 as part of Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation.

The IRA operated a number of inflammatory internet domains, including blacksvwhite.info, blackmattersua.com and blacktolive.org. It was also highly active on YouTube, producing more than 1,000 videos seeking to inflame tensions around the Black Lives Matter movement or to link police violence to anti-Clinton messages.

The most popular of the IRA accounts was the Instagram profile @blackstagram_, which had more than 300,000 followers and had generated 28 million reactions. Collectively, the IRA troll accounts elicited 187 million engagements on Instagram.

“While other distinct ethnic and religious groups were the focus of one or two Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts, the Black community was targeted extensively with dozens,” the report states. “This is why we have elected to assess the messaging directed at Black Americans as a distinct and significant operation.”

Russian misinformation campaign was “fluent in American trolling”

The report doesn’t seek to explain why African American social media users were targeted but it appears the IRA sought to discourage a demographic that traditionally supports Democratic candidates, from voting at all in a bid to help Donald Trump.

“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 IRA also created armies of fake social media accounts to support Donald Trump on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google Plus and the now-defunct Vine.

The fake accounts often used memes and comic posts to spread pro-Trump and anti-Clinton messages. As the report outlines, “The IRA was fluent in American trolling culture.”

The report also suggests executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter may have obstructed the investigation into Russian interference by giving authorities incomplete data.

The platforms may have also misrepresented facts or been evasive in statements to Congress, the report says. “It is unclear whether these answers were the result of faulty or lacking analysis, or a more deliberate evasion,” it concludes.

Social media platforms respond to the report

In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Our singular focus is to improve the health of the public conversation on our platform, and protecting the integrity of elections is an important aspect of that mission. We’ve made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service, including our release of additional data in October related to previously disclosed activities to enable further independent academic research and investigation.”

A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement that the company has been fully cooperative with the Russia probe. “We’ve provided thousands of ads and pieces of content to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for review and shared information with the public about what we found,” the spokesperson said.

“Since then, we’ve made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy.”

Google’s spokesperson declined to comment on the issue.

The report’s release comes shortly after a separate report into the same issue completed by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and analysis firm Graphika was obtained by The Washington Post. That report concluded: “What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump.”

The report found that Russian interference was highly sophisticated and tailored social media posts, images and videos to appeal to the interests of specific users and groups.