There are now two independent reports that confirm the scale and depth of the Weaponisation of social media by Russia. What happened is now a well-established evidence-based fact, and it is still happening. While various media reports have placed all of this into the public domain, let’s step back, find the alpha sources, the actual reports, and take a quick peek to see what they tell us.
Report 1: The IRA and Political Polarization in the United States
The report was commissioned and then released by the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee that is chaired jointly by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), its chairman, and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). Side note, the term IRA within the title is an abbreviation that refers to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. The report has been written by Oxford University’s computational propaganda project.
Facebook, Twitter and Google all provided a data dump leading up to about mid the 2017s. The report contains an analysis of all this data.
Report 2: The Disinformation Report
This report was also commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee, but has been conducted completely independently of the other one. It was created by researchers for New Knowledge, Columbia University and Canfield Research
The evidence is both robust and beyond dispute. Russia’s Internet Research Agency weaponised social media, and for years has been using it to wage a propaganda war.
- Starting in about 2009 they targeted their own population and sphere of influence. That enable them to hone their skills.
- In about 2014 they broadened those operations to include the United States and ran a multi-year campaign to manipulate and influence Americans, exploiting social and political divisions. If you wonder why we have become so polarised, here is your answer.
- The scale of their operations has been massive — reaching 126 million people on Facebook, posting 10.4 million tweets on Twitter, uploading 1,000+ videos to YouTube, and reaching over 20 million users on Instagram.
- Russia’s IRA activities were designed to polarize the US public and interfere in elections
- They actively sought to influence the 2016 campaign and supported the election of Trump by targeting right-wing voters
Let’s now jump into each report for a more detailed look.
The IRA and Political Polarization in the United States
Here is a summary of the finding from this report …
- Between 2013 and 2018, the IRA’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter campaigns reached tens of millions of users in the United States.
- Over 30 million users, between 2015 and 2017, shared the IRA’s Facebook and Instagram posts with their friends and family, liking, reacting to, and commenting on them along the way.
- Peaks in advertising and organic activity often correspond to important dates in the US political calendar, crises, and international events.
- IRA activities focused on the US began on Twitter in 2013 but quickly evolved into a multi-platform strategy involving Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube among other platforms.
- The most far reaching IRA activity is in organic posting, not advertisements.
- Russia’s IRA activities were designed to polarize the US public and interfere in elections by:
- campaigning for African American voters to boycott elections or follow the wrong voting procedures in 2016, and more recently for Mexican American and Hispanic voters to distrust US institutions;
- encouraging extreme right-wing voters to be more confrontational; and
- spreading sensationalist, conspiratorial, and other forms of junk political news and misinformation to voters across the political spectrum.
- Surprisingly, these campaigns did not stop once Russia’s IRA was caught interfering in the 2016 election. Engagement rates increased and covered a widening range of public policy issues, national security issues, and issues pertinent to younger voters.
- The highest peak of IRA ad volume on Facebook is in April 2017 — the month of the Syrian missile strike, the use of the Mother of All Bombs on ISIS tunnels in eastern Afghanistan, and the release of the tax reform plan.
- IRA posts on Instagram and Facebook increased substantially after the election, with Instagram seeing the greatest increase in IRA activity.
- The IRA accounts actively engaged with disinformation and practices common to Russian “trolling”. Some posts referred to Russian troll factories that flooded online conversations with posts, others denied being Russian trolls, and some even complained about the platforms’ alleged political biases when they faced account suspension.
The full report (pdf here), runs to about 46 pages and is quite readable.
The Disinformation Report
This report consists of multiple parts. Each of the parts has a whitepaper focusing on the IRA’s tactics and messages, and a slide deck focusing on summary statistics, infographics, and thematic presentation of memes from organic Facebook Page and Instagram account posts. They focus upon the 2016 Election and also the Targeted Manipulation of Black Americans.
Manipulation of Black Americans
Broadly, Russian interference has taken three distinct forms, the scope of their analysis is only the third one below:
- Attempts to hack online voting systems (as detailed by a United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report)
- A cyber-attack targeting the Democratic National Committee, executed by the GRU, which led to a controlled leak via Wikileaks of email data related to the Clinton Presidential campaign team
- A sweeping and sustained social influence operation consisting of various coordinated disinformation tactics aimed directly at US citizens, designed to exert political influenceand exacerbate social divisions in US culture
The rabid Trump supporting base have been successfully radicalised by the Russian Weaponisation of social media. The modern battlefield is one where disinformation and propaganda on a massive scale has been successfully deployed in order to manipulate.
When caught, they simply continue by redirecting traffic to platforms where their activities had not been disrupted, and by using accounts on one social media platform to complain about suspensions of their accounts on another platform.
They posed as US citizens, but also did make mistakes. For instance, the use of Russian phone carriers and IP addresses for St. Petersburg are evident in the account metadata for user profiles that claimed to be US based.
Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement, to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants, and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike
…During 2016 and 2017 we saw significant efforts made by Russia to disrupt elections around the world, but also political parties in these countries spreading disinformation domestically. Looking at the growth of cyber troop activity from 2017 to 2018 has demonstrated that these strategies are circulating globally. We cannot wait for national courts to address the technicalities of infractions after running an election or referendum. Protecting our democracies now means setting the rules of fair play before voting day, not after.
…democracies need to take computational propaganda seriously as a threat to their public life…
– The IRA and Political Polarization in the United States