- Russia influence on the 2016 presidential election spanned beyond Facebook and Twitter, according to new reports provided to the Senate intelligence committee.
- The research concluded that the disinformation campaign reached several social media platforms previously unnamed, including Instagram,Vine, and Pinterest.
- Business Insider has compiled all the social media platforms named in the reports, and the roles that each platform played in the Russian-linked influence operation.
The use of social media to spread political disinformation has been widely acknowledged, but two new reports show that the Russian-linked influence campaign spread way beyond Facebook and Twitter.
The twonew reports, conducted for the Senate’s intelligence committee, detailed the widespread impact of online propaganda leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Researchers found that the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm behind the disinformation campaign, left few social media platforms untouched.
IRA-linked content was found heavily on popular platforms Instagram and YouTube, and also on smaller platforms like Pinterest, SoundCloud, Vine, and even Pokémon Go.
“The breadth of the attack included games, browser extensions, and music apps created by the IRA and pushed to targeted groups,” New Knowledge researchers wrote in their report. “It was designed to exploit societal fractures, blur the lines between reality and fiction, erode our trust in media entities and the information environment, in government, in each other, and in democracy itself.”
Here are all the social media platforms identified in the most recent reports on the Russia-linked disinformation campaign:
The breadth of Instagram’s role in Russian propaganda was relatively unknown until now. Monday’s reports showed just how central Instagram, a Facebook-owned photo-sharing platform, was to the operation: an estimated 116,000 posts from 133 accounts, 20 milion users reached, and 187 million engagements.
“Instagram was a significant front in the IRA’s influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in Congressional testimony,” New Knowledge said in its report.
Researchers found that Instagram engagement actually outperformed Facebook, which it attributed to the photo-sharing service “being more ideal for memetic warfare.”
Memes were used often by the accounts, and were recycled and repurposed often. They were used to post conspiracy theories, voter fraud allegations, recruit human assets, and organised public events.
The reports saw an uptick in Instagram activity from the IRA after the 2016 presidential election, which researchers credit as a response to “increased scrutiny” put on Facebook and Twitter.
The New Knowledge report concluded that Instagram would be “a key battleground” platform for propaganda and political influence in the future.
A Facebook spokesperson issued the following statement to Business Insider:
“As we’ve said all along, Congress and the intelligence community are best placed to use the information we and others provide to determine the political motivations of actors like the Internet Research Agency. We continue to fully cooperate with officials investigating the IRA’s activity on Facebook and Instagram around the 2016 election. 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. 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.”
The two reports analysed more than 1,100 YouTube videos, across almost 20 channels, connected to the disinformation campaign. YouTube was one of the platforms that researchers looked into the most and found to be among the most impactful – along with Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
The report from Oxford and Graphika found that YouTube videos “were predominantly used to target African Americans.” New Knowledge identified 59% of the channels and 96% of the content on YouTube from the IRA was “related to Black Lives Matter & police brutality.”
The New Knowledge report also criticised Google for its comments in 2017 that “these channels’ videos were not targeted to the U.S. or to any particular sector of the U.S. population.” Researchers say that with the findings, the statement “appears disingenuous now.”
Google declined to comment to Business Insider.
From the New Knowledge report: “Tumblr was used to disseminate memes and reblog existing content – particularly those found on Instagram … There were extensive efforts to target Black communities on Tumblr, particularly youth and urban communities.”
Operations that took place on Tumblr were referenced in proceedings during the federal investigation – and indictment – into Russians associated with the disinformation campaign, the report notes.
Tumblr has confirmed its platform was used for “state-sponsored disinformation campaigns,” and that Tumblr accounts were used for “cross-pollination” with related Facebook pages and Twitter users. In March 2018, Tumblr started in to post usernames it determined were engaging in propaganda activities. With the latest additions in November, the list is up to 197 names.
Tumblr did not provide additional comment to Business Insider, but did point to a post written in March detailing steps the platform had taken.
From the New Knowledge report: “Reddit was used to disseminate memes as well as links to the IRA’s own sites. The accounts made 14,000 posts, focusing on meme groups and political humour as well as racism and police issues.”
Reddit announced in April it had identified 944 “suspicious accounts” with links to the Russia-based IRA. Some of these accounts were incredibly active and popular on Reddit, as noted by these accounts’ “karma scores” that track user engagement.
Reddit accounts were also used for “cross-pollination” with a number of Instagram and Facebook pages and Twitter personas, the report said. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman said in a post earlier this year that the platform was “cooperating with congressional inquiries,” and that most of the accounts participating in direct and indirect propaganda had been shut down.
A Reddit spokesperson issued the following statement to Business Insider:
“We are currently reviewing the reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee. We will continue to fully cooperate with any investigations into suspected foreign influence. We are always evaluating and evolving our approaches to detecting malicious activity and have grown our team significantly since 2016. We will continue to be transparent and open with our community and investigators on these issues.”
From the New Knowledge report: “Pinterest appears to have served largely as a repository of content … Meme boards were created by IRA-linked accounts, including LGBT United, United Muslims, and Heart of Texas, but the content does not appear to have been actively disseminated through these accounts on Pinterest. Although the IRA did not pursue Pinterest audience engagement directly, other users frequently pinned IRA memes to their own boards.”
The report concludes that these accounts were likely used for “SEO (Search Engine Optimization), discovery, and audience-growth purposes.”
Pinterest did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider. However, the image-sharing site confirmed to the Washington Post in October 2017 that its platform was affected by the IRA, saying that “fake Facebook content was so sophisticated that it tricked real Americans into saving it to Pinterest.”
Google products: Google+, Gmail, Voice, Ads
From Alphabet’s data, the New Knowledge report concluded: “Alphabet’s subsidiaries YouTube, G+, Gmail, and Google Voice were each leveraged to support the creation and validation of false personas.”
Using Google’s ad platform, AdWords, the IRA was able to disseminate hundreds of ads and promote propaganda websites, the New Knowledge report found. The IRA used ads to bill its various websites as “independent news,” with more than 10 ads each given to the domains OnePoliticalPlaza, Blackmattersus, and Russia-direct.org. The most promoted site was the now-dormant think tank Global Intelligence Analytics, with 199 ads.
A number of IRA-linked email addresses, stemming from Gmail, were used to create accounts across social media. Some of these email accounts also had affiliated Google+ pages, New Knowledge says. Additionally, some Russian propaganda Twitter bots had affiliated Google Voice accounts, according to the report.
Google declined to comment to Business Insider, but did direct us to a post from October 2017 that acknowledged the company had found “some evidence of efforts to misuse our platforms.”
In its findings, Google revealed IRA-linked accounts has spent $US4,700 on ads ahead of the 2016 political election. The company also said the IRA used Gmail, Google+, AdSense and Ad Exchange, and Search & News.
Using data provided from Google, Facebook, and Twitter, researchers said in the New Knowledge report their investigation “confirms activity” on Vine.
The now-defunct app, owned by Twitter, was known as a popular platform for six-second easy-to-create videos. This content was often “aggregated or repurposed” onto YouTube, the report says, where the IRA had an incredibly prolific operation.
A Twitter spokesperson issued the following statement to Business Insider:
“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.”
Meetup is a platform where online groups can organise in-person events, and that’s exactly how it was used in Russia’s campaign.
The site was used specifically in IRA’s targeting of black Americans, and a Meetup account was created with IRA’s popular “Black Matters US” brand. New Knowledge says Meetup was used to organise “black self-defence classes for Fit Black/Black Fist.”
Meetup did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.
Pokémon Go became an instant global phenomenon when it launched in July 2016, the summer right before the presidential election that the IRA sought to influence. According to New Knowledge, the IRA incorporated Pokémon Go into its strategy, “illustrating the fluid, evolving, and innovative tactical approach the IRA leveraged to interfere in US politics and culture.”
The report notes a Tumblr post from an IRA-linked account that “advocated that players of Pokémon Go name their Pokémon with a police brutality victim’s name.” Although the original post is gone, reblogs of the post mean it’s still visible on Tumblr.
Niantic, the developer behind Pokémon Go, issued the following statement to Business Insider:
“It’s clear that our game assets were appropriated and misused in promotions by third parties without our permission. It is important to note that Pokemon GO, as a platform, was not and cannot be used to share information between users in the app so our platform was in no way being used. This “contest” required people to take screen shots from their phone and share over other social networks, not within our game.”
Medium was one of the social media platforms that “publicly confirmed” the presence of Russia-based disinformation, the New Knowledge report says.
WIRED found in November 2017 that a number of Russian-linked Twitter accounts were used to blog on Medium about race, politics and current news. One of the accounts, @jenn_abrams, amassed 1,300 Medium followers and became a convincing online presence.
A Medium spokesperson told WIRED: “We’re paying close attention and working to ensure that our trust and safety processes continue to evolve and identify any accounts that violate our rules.”
Medium did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.
Gab prides itself as a “social network that champions free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online.” It’s become an alternate platform for far-right extremists, especially because the site does not police hate speech.
Gab was also one of the popular social platforms used to make IRA activity more widespread, New Knowledge says. The report doesn’t go into much detail about Gab’s involvement, but links it with activity that appeared on VKontakte and LiveJournal, two social platforms popular in Russia.
Most recently, Gab was in the news because of its usage by the suspected shooter in the Pittsburgh synagogue spree killing in October. The suspect reportedly posted several anti-Semitic messages to Gab.
A Gab spokesperson issued the following statement to Business Insider:
“Gab routinely flags suspicious activity, including bots and other automated spam behaviour that is against our User Guidelines, and takes action against those accounts. Customarily Gab does not investigate the content of political viewpoints expressed on the site, including from these bot accounts, unless that content is found to not be protected under the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution. We routinely work with U.S. law enforcement, but it is our policy to not comment on active investigations.”
Some of the IRA’s “brands” and organisations used across social media set up associated PayPal accounts to receive online donations, according to the report from Oxford University researchers. The report identifies Black Matters US as one of the groups with a PayPal presence.
A PayPal spokesperson issued the following statement to Business Insider:
“PayPal works to combat and prevent the illicit use of our services. We devote significant resources to these efforts and, when necessary, work closely with law enforcement officials to identify, investigate and stop improper or potentially illegal activity. We continue to regularly assesses activity against our Acceptable Use Policy and discontinue accounts that are found to violate our policies.”
SoundCloud is a popular forum for people to upload and share audio files like music and podcasts, and it was part of the IRA’s disinformation arsenal as well.
Operating under the username “SKWAD 55,” the IRA ran a SoundCloud podcast that was used in connection with the fictitious group Black Matters US, according to the New Knowledge report.
SoundCloud did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.