- The Washington Post said it had seen a draft report showing how Russia used social-media platforms from Google, Facebook, and Twitter to influence voters and help elect Donald Trump as president of the United States.
- A goldmine of posts provided by the big tech firms to the Senate Intelligence Committee allowed researchers to conduct the first major data dive into Russia’s influence campaign, The Post said.
- The Post described the report as “the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign.”
The Washington Post said it had seen a draft report containing a deep data analysis of how Russia used social-media platforms for several years, until the middle of 2017, to influence US politics.
The Post described the report as the first study of the millions of posts provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee by firms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, saying it provides a new window into how Russia grasped the power of social media, built an understanding of it, and manipulated it to target US voters and help elect Donald Trump as president.
The newspaper said the Senate-bound report, which the article described as “the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign,” was compiled with research by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and the network-analysis firm Graphika.
“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party – and specifically Donald Trump,” the report said, according to The Post. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”
But how did they do it?
Citing the report, The Post said that “the Russians aimed particular energy at activating conservatives on issues such as gun rights and immigration, while sapping the political clout of left-leaning African American voters by undermining their faith in elections and spreading misleading information about how to vote.”
The researchers said they found evidence of sloppiness on the part of the Russians – including buying ads with Russian currency and giving Russian phone numbers as contact information – that suggested they probably could have been found out early on in their campaign, according to The Post.
The report is said to outline a little history and strategy of the Russian effort to influence US politics:
- The Russians started on Twitter in 2013, then added YouTube and Instagram before finally diving into Facebook.
- It appears the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, got the hang of it around 2014, when the mission sprang to life and then grew annually as it better targeted specific demographics.
- Facebook was effective in targeting conservatives and black Americans – 99% of all likes, shares, and other reactions came from only 20 IRA-controlled pages, which had names like “Heart of Texas” and “Blacktivist.”
- On Instagram, owned by Facebook, the Russians ran 133 accounts that sought to divide Americans based on “race, ethnicity or other forms of personal identity,” The Post said.
- “The use of YouTube, like the other platforms, appears to have grown after Trump’s election,” The Post said, adding that the report found that Twitter links to videos on YouTube, a Google subsidiary, grew by 84% in the six months after the election in November 2016.
- The Russians’ snowballing campaign spilled into the real world as they linked posts across their “Black Matters US” accounts, which had followers on platforms including YouTube, Tumblr, and PayPal, to seek donations, organise rallies, and funnel traffic to a Russia-controlled site.
- IRA operatives created Google ads that said things like “Cops kill black kids. Are you sure that your son won’t be the next?” to sow fear, discord, and division while promoting the “Black Matters US” site. A related Twitter account accused Facebook of “supporting white supremacy” for shutting down its page in August 2016.
- According to The Post, Facebook officials have told Congress that the Russian campaign reached 126 million people on Facebook and 20 million more on Instagram. The report found that the Instagram posts in particular generated 185 million likes and 4 million comments.
The report touches on the roles of YouTube and Instagram in the Russians’ campaign and sheds further light on their use of other platforms like Google+, Tumblr, and Pinterest, as well as email accounts from Yahoo, Hotmail, and Gmail, according to The Post.
Perhaps the most damning insight for the tech giants in the report, which The Post said the Senate would release to the public later this week, is researchers’ descriptions of difficulties faced in accessing their data. The authors described a “belated and uncoordinated response” to the Russian campaign and criticised the companies for not sharing more data faster and in “meaningful and constructive” ways, The Post reported.
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