It should be well-known by now that Russian operatives made memes and fake activist pages to try to sway the 2016 presidential campaign for Donald Trump. But what most people don’t know is that they were also selling sex toys, recruiting Americans to work with them through job listings, offering free self-defense classes, soliciting photos for a calendar, and even offering counseling to followers of page called Army of Jesus who were struggling with porn addiction. Two new reports delivered to the Senate Intelligence Committee—one from the cybersecurity group New Knowledge and the other from Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and the social networking–analysis firm Graphika—expand what the public knows about how a Kremlin-linked troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, widened divides in American political life during and after the 2016 election. Together, the reports comprise the most extensive research yet into exactly how Russian agents instrumentalized U.S. technology companies to launch what may be largest state-sponsored effort to manipulate voters and derail an election in U.S. history.
While the two reports both present new findings, they both also deliver some familiar conclusions: Social media companies weren’t completely forthright with Congress about the extent of Russian disinformation activities when the companies testified after the 2016 election. Both sets of researchers also found that Instagram, owned by Facebook, and YouTube, owned by Google, played a far greater role in the propaganda campaign than previously thought and that Russian agents were particularly focused on and effective at exploiting long-standing racial tensions in the U.S. For example, the New Knowledge report notes that of the 1,107 videos on YouTube the researchers reviewed, 1,063, or 96 percent, were about either police brutality or the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet when YouTube testified to Congress in 2017, the company shared in a statement, “These channels’ videos were not targeted to the U.S. or to any particular sector of the U.S. population.” While that comment may be referring to paid targeted advertising, researchers with New Knowledge wrote that the testimony “appears disingenuous.”
The researchers at New Knowledge also found that Instagram—through which, Facebook previously reported, the IRA trolls reached 20 million users, compared to 126 million on Facebook—was actually a far more fruitful platform for engagement than Facebook was, despite the smaller number of users reached. Instagram clocked in about 187 million user engagements (meaning likes, shares, and comments) while Facebook amassed about 77 million, according to the research, which tracked Internet Research Agency accounts from early 2015 to the fall of 2017. The Russian trolls were clearly aware of their success on Instagram. The report from Oxford University found that activity on Instagram from the Russian troll operation skyrocketed after the election, from 2,600 posts a month in 2016 to about 6,000 posts per month in 2017 before the accounts were shuttered by Facebook.