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Senate Intel Committee’s new report on Russia disinformation campaign

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The Russian government’s disinformation campaign ahead of the 2016 US election was far more sophisticated than previously known and made use of nearly every major social media platform to spread misinformation, according to two new reports released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday.

Each of the reports was compiled by third-party researchers. The first, produced by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge, analyzed the impact that social-media companies had on the election.

Here are the report’s key takeaways:

  • Russia has “active and ongoing interference operations” that “remain on several platforms.”
  • The Russians specifically targeted the African-American community with the goal of “developing black audiences” and “recruiting black Americans as assets.”
  • The Russians used an array of tactics to suppress Democratic voter turnout.
    • Russia-linked accounts used Twitter to spread misinformation about voting rules.
    • They tried to sway voter opinion in favor of third party candidates.
    • They urged voters to stay home on Election Day by pushing messages like, “Your vote doesn’t matter.”
  • The Internet Research Agency — a notorious Russian troll farm indicted by the special counsel Robert Mueller earlier this year — used Instagram as a “significant front” for its operation.
  • The IRA demonstrated a “very clear bias” in favor of then candidate Donald Trump beginning during the primaries.
  • “A substantial portion” of the IRA’s political content was aimed at provoking anti-Hillary Clinton sentiment.
  • There was no pro-Clinton Russian content on either Facebook or Instagram. While there was some pro-Clinton content on Twitter, Russia-linked accounts that leaned left were still largely anti-Clinton and pushed messaging favoring Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein.
  • The IRA shifted more of its focus to Instagram in 2017, as the media began covering Russian activity on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Executives at Facebook, which owns Instagram, “avoided mentioning” the extent of the IRA’s use of Instagram in congressional testimony.
  • Russia-linked accounts had 187 million engagements across Instagram and reached approximately 20 million users, not including “regrams,” or posts that users re-post using an outside sharing app.
  • They had 76.5 million engagements on Facebook that reached an estimated 126 million people.
  • Russia-linked content had more engagement on Instagram because it was more conducive to “meme warfare,” a key facet of Russia’s influence operation.
  • The IRA pushed secessionist movements in states like Texas and California to “exacerbate discord against the government at federal, state, and local levels.”
  • The troll farm made a concerted effort to either increase or erode support for prominent political figures, including Mueller, late Arizona Sen. John McCain, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and former FBI director James Comey.

A print out of a social media post targeting former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is on display as Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) speaks during a hearing before the House (Select) Intelligence Committee November 1, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on ‘Russia Investigative Task Force: Social Media Companies.’
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Engagement rates for Russia-linked content spiked after the election

The second report was compiled by the University of Oxford and Graphika. According to The Washington Post, which obtained a draft of the report Sunday, the Oxford report is the first to study the millions of posts provided by major tech firms to the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The report found that the IRA worked to polarize the US public using a variety of tactics. They included urging African-American voters to sit out the election and disseminating false or misleading voting information to groups that tend to vote Democratic, like Mexican-American and Hispanic voters.

The IRA also encouraged “extreme right-wing voters to be confrontational,” the report said. It also spread sensationalist and conspiratorial junk news across the political spectrum.

These efforts didn’t stop once the IRA was caught. On the contrary, the report said, engagement rates increased and covered a “widening range of public policy issues, national security issues, and issues pertinent to younger voters.”

The report had several other key takeaways, including:

  • Between 2013 and 2018 the IRA’s influence operations across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram reached “tens of millions” of users in the US.
  • Between 2015 and 2017, over 30 million users shared the IRA’s content on Facebook and Twitter.
  • The IRA’s ad volume on Facebook peaked in April 2017, coinciding with the Trump-ordered missile strike on a Syrian air base, the US’s use of the Mother of all Bombs on tunnels controlled by the Islamic State in Afghanistan, and the Republicans’ release of a tax reform plan.
  • Following the 2016 election, Instagram saw the greatest spike in IRA activity.
  • The IRA began its disinformation campaign on Twitter but later expanded to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube as the 2016 election grew nearer.
  • Russian social media activity peaked — in both advertisements and organic posts — around important dates in the US political sphere.
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