Russias disinformation campaign during and after the 2016 presidential election touched nearly every top social media platform as it sought to sway U.S. voters, according to a pair of reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee that offer the most detailed look yet at the Kremlins interference effort.
The reports, commissioned by Senate Intelligence leaders, shed light on the breadth of the Russian strategy, which included posting content on not only Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but also Instagram, Reddit, Tumblr and Pinterest. The findings endorse the conclusions of special counsel Robert Muellers team that the Internet Research Agency sought to play on political divisions in the U.S., including identity politics, but in some ways go beyond Muellers conclusions, describing a sophisticated and multifaceted approach.
“The goals of active measures are to undermine citizens trust in government, exploit societal fractures, create distrust in the information environment, blur the lines between reality and fiction, undermine trust among communities, and erode confidence in the democratic process,” according to one of the reports by the research firm New Knowledge. “This campaign pursued all of those objectives with skill and precision. The IRA exploited divisions in our society using vulnerabilities in our information ecosystem.”
That report also suggests the tech firms were less than fully cooperative in sharing information with the research teams tapped by Congress to investigate Russian interference. The researchers wrote that Facebook and Twitter excluded and in some cases removed data from the information they supplied to Congress, adding, “This hints at the possibility of deciding to provide the bare minimum possible to meet the Committees request.”
The findings from New Knowledge and another team of researchers at the University of Oxford and Graphika provide the most sweeping view yet of how Russian trolls sought to manipulate divisions in U.S. society and boost the candidacy of Donald Trump, adding fresh details to a picture thats been emerging over the last two years through media reports and Muellers indictments of Russian hackers and officials.
The reports also give fresh ammunition to critics of the tech industry, which is already under intense pressure in Washington over election interference as well as privacy violations and conservative accusations of bias. Democrats and Republicans appear poised to dial up their scrutiny of Silicon Valley next year in the divided Congress.
In total, Russian operations included over 10 million tweets, over 1,000 YouTube videos, roughly 116,000 Instagram posts and more than 60,000 unique Facebook posts, New Knowledge found. That translated to a reach of over 120 million people on Facebook and 20 million on its subsidiary, Instagram.
While online manipulation efforts on Facebook and Twitter have been well chronicled, the findings show the Kremlin campaign focused much of its effort on platforms like Instagram. “Instagram engagement outperformed Facebook,” the report says, indicating the service may be “more ideal for memetic warfare” — disinformation that plays on online tropes.
According to the New Knowledge report, “there appeared to be a strong and consistent preference for then-candidate Donald Trump, beginning in the early primaries,” in the influence operations run by the IRA. By comparison, almost no Russian content favored Trumps challenger, Hillary Clinton, and the Russians generated an array of anti-Clinton messages in social media posts that appeared to be both left-leaning and right-leaning.
The reports, however, found that a majority of the Kremlin content “focused on societally divisive issues, most notably race.” The IRAs campaign, Oxford and Graphika wrote, sought to convince African-American voters to “boycott” the elections and turn away from political institutions “by preying on anger with structural inequalities … including police violence, poverty, and disproportionate levels of incarceration.”
A representative for Facebook on Monday said the company had “not seen” the findings and declined to comment on its specifics. “We continue to fully cooperate with officials investigating the IRAs activity on Facebook and Instagram around the 2016 election,” the spokesperson said.
Google declined to comment. A spokesperson for Twitter said the company has “made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service.” Representatives for Tumblr, Pinterest and Reddit did not immediately respond.
Senate Intelligence leaders called for action from Silicon Valley in the wake of the findings. The panels chairman, Richard Burr (R-N.C.), said the reports “are proof positive that one of the most important things we can do is increase information sharing between the social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them.”
Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the committees ranking Democrat, said addressing foreign influence operations will “require some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media.”