Two new reports analyzing the scope of Russian interference in the 2016 elections found that foreign actors dominated and manipulated political social media on a colossal scale, reaching more than 126 million people in a coordinated effort to benefit the Republican Party while damaging the Democratic Party.
Both reports, commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee, essentially confirm various findings in the two years since Donald Trump was elected president that Moscow was widely successful in reaching Americans, using an array of tactics online.
Thousands of Russian accounts amassed millions of followers on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit and Pinterest, generating hundreds of millions of social engagements.
The first report ― created by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, a network analysis firm ― shows how a Russian company called the Internet Research Agency created thousands of accounts and “launched an extended attack on the United States” election by polarizing American politics and boosting Donald Trump’s campaign, according to The Washington Post.
The intent was clear: Promote Trump content and disparage Hillary Clinton.
“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” reads the report, which was released Monday. “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.”
A second report by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company based in Austin, Texas, focused on which groups were targeted and how. The IRA gave particular attention to African-American audiences; 30 of its 81 Facebook pages, for example, were meant for black Americans and amassed 1.2 million followers.
According to The New York Times, which obtained the report before its release:
While the right-wing pages promoted Mr. Trump’s candidacy, the left-wing pages scorned Mrs. Clinton while promoting Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. The voter suppression effort was focused particularly on Sanders supporters and African-Americans, urging them to shun Mrs. Clinton in the general election and either vote for Ms. Stein or stay home.
The IRA, whose leadership has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, used an array of tactics to get its message out. Sometimes it gathered followers with a Facebook or Instagram page about something relatively innocuous ― like “The Simpsons” or “The Muppet Show” ― and then switched to political content. Accounts and memes on them would align Trump content with Jesus and Texas, for instance, and liken Hillary Clinton to Satan, according to the Times.
Highlights of Russian influence in New Knowledge’s report alone are jarring:
- about 10.4 million tweets (of which some 6 million were original) across 3,841 Twitter accounts
- about 1,100 YouTube videos across 17 account channels
- about 116,000 Instagram posts across 133 accounts
- about 61,500 unique Facebook posts across 81 pages
According to the Post:
Together, the 20 most popular pages generated 39 million likes, 31 million shares, 5.4 million reactions and 3.4 million comments. Company officials told Congress that the Russian campaign reached 126 million people on Facebook and 20 million more on Instagram.