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How Russian trolls used meme warfare to divide America

Author: Nicholas Thompson and Issie Lapowsky

There’s a meme on Instagram, circulated by a group called “Born Liberal.” A fist holds a cluster of strings, reaching down into people with television sets for heads. The text declares: “The People Believe What the Media Tells Them They Believe: George Orwell.” The quote is surely false, but it’s also perfect in a way. “Born Liberal” was a creation of the Internet Research Agency, the Russian propaganda wing that might as well be part of Oceania. In other words, we live in a time when American democratic debate is being influenced by liars spreading memes about our inability to understand the truth.

This particular meme is one of many revealed in a new report released on Monday, commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee and written by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm whose director of research, Renee DiResta, is a WIRED contributor. This report, along with a second one written by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University and Graphik, offers the most extensive look at the IRA’s attempts to divide Americans, suppress the vote, and boost then-candidate Donald Trump before and after the 2016 presidential election. The report sheds new light on the ways the IRA trolls targeted African Americans and the outsized role Instagram played in their work. It also calls into question statements tech executives have made under oath to Congress in the past 18 months.

The report by New Knowledge is based on a review of 10.4 million tweets, 1,100 YouTube videos, 116,000 Instagram posts, and 61,500 unique Facebook posts published from 2015 through 2017. This is not a complete data set of Russian influence operations, but it’s still the largest such analysis to take place outside of the companies themselves. And it shows that the Russians weren’t just running a bland content farm, churning out propaganda in broken English. The operation was deeply sophisticated, and at times, downright funny. As the report’s authors note: “The IRA was fluent in American trolling culture.”

The most explosive finding in the report may be the assertion that both Facebook and Google executives misled Congress in statements. The researchers suggest that Facebook “dissembled” about the IRA’s voter suppression efforts on the platform in written responses to Congress in October, following the testimony of chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg in October. At the time, the company was asked: “Does Facebook believe that any of the content created by the Russian Internet Research Agency was designed to discourage anyone from voting?” Facebook responded: “We believe this is an assessment that can be made only by investigators with access to classified intelligence and information from all relevant companies and industries.”

A Facebook spokesperson added on Monday morning: “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.”

Nevertheless, the report lays out ample obvious examples of how Facebook and Twitter were both used to discourage turnout. In some cases, the trolls tried to mislead people into texting their votes. In others, they encouraged Americans to vote for third-party candidates like Jill Stein or give up on voting all together, with messages that read “F*CK THE ELECTIONS.”

Meanwhile, the authors of the report question Google’s disclosures just before the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in October 2017. At the time, the company put out a statement saying that none of the IRA-linked YouTube accounts was “targeted to the US or to any particular sector of the US population.” Yet the researchers found that, in fact, of the 1,100 total YouTube videos they discovered, 1,063 focused on police brutality and Black Lives Matter, 571 of which had keywords related to police and police brutality.1 While the statement was likely talking about advertising targeting, the report’s authors believe that it “appears disingenuous.” You can read the full report at the bottom of this story.

“We conducted an in-depth investigation across multiple product areas, and provided a detailed and thorough report to investigators. As we said at the time, videos on YouTube are viewable by anyone. Users can create videos intended for certain audiences, but there is no way to target by race on Google or YouTube,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement Monday afternoon.2

The focus on police brutality and content targeting African Americans wasn’t limited to YouTube. Among more than a dozen web domains the IRA registered, the vast majority, including and, were aimed at black communities. Of the 33 most popular Facebook pages linked to the IRA, nearly half focused on black audiences. This effort was particularly successful on Instagram, where the account @blackstagram_ amassed more than 300,000 followers and elicited more than 28 million reactions. Much of this content seemed designed to stoke distrust among African Americans in democratic institutions and depress black turnout for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Conversations around the IRA’s operations traditionally have focused on Facebook and Twitter, but like any hip millennial, the IRA was actually most obsessive about Instagram. “Instagram was perhaps the most effective platform for the Internet Research Agency,” the New Knowledge researchers write. All in, the troll accounts received 187 million engagements on Instagram, and about 40 percent of the accounts they created had at least 10,000 followers.

That isn’t to say, however, that the trolls neglected Twitter. There, the IRA deployed 3,841 accounts, including several personas that “regularly played hashtag games.” That approach paid off; 1.4 million people engaged with the tweets, leading to nearly 73 million engagements. Most of this work was focused on news, while on Facebook and Instagram, the Russians prioritized “deeper relationships,” according to the researchers. On Facebook, the IRA notched a total of 3.3 million page followers, who engaged with their politically divisive content 76.5 million times. Russia’s most popular pages targeted the right wing and the black community. The trolls also knew their audiences; they deployed Pepe memes at pages intended for right-leaning millennials, but kept them away from posts directed at older conservative Facebook users. Not every attempt was a hit; while 33 of the 81 IRA Facebook pages had over 1,000 followers, dozens had none at all.

That the IRA trolls aimed to pit Americans against each other with divisive memes is now well known. But this latest report reveals just how bizarre some of the IRA’s outreach got. To collect personally identifying information about targets, and perhaps use it to create custom and Lookalike audiences on Facebook, the IRA’s Instagram pages sold all kinds of merchandise. That includes LGBT sex toys and “many variants of triptych and 5-panel artwork featuring traditionally conservative, patriotic themes.”

The IRA also worked to recruit offline converts with job listings, some of which reveal just how low the trolls were willing to go to carry out their plot. One Facebook page called Army of Jesus offered free counseling to people with sexual addiction, using ads that read “‘Struggling with addiction to masturbation? Reach out to me and we will beat it together’ - Jesus.”

The report also points out new links between the IRA’s pages and Wikileaks, which helped disseminate hacked emails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta in the weeks leading up to the election. On October 4, 2016, days before the first email dump, the researchers found Facebook and Instagram posts about Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, which “reinforc[ed] his reputation as a freedom fighter.”

It’s important to stress that all of this represents organic activity—that is to say, Russian presence unrelated to the relatively small ad spend that Facebook executives pointed to as the story first unfolded, in what the report authors describe as an attempt to downplay the problem. The authors also note that even silly memes can change minds. “While many people think of memes as “cat pictures with words,” the Defense Department and DARPA have studied them for years as a powerful tool of cultural influence, capable of reinforcing or even changing values and behavior.

The researchers can’t say whether any of this propaganda actually influenced the election. That’s partly to do with the squishy nature of measuring political persuasion and partly to do with the fact that some key data remains missing. The researchers had no access, for example, to user comments or conversion data that might have helped illuminate the impact this content had.

What these millions of digital artifacts do show, when taken together, is just how much planning and coordination went into the IRA’s scheme. Between the Twitter handles, the Facebook pages, the Instagram posts, the YouTube personalities, the fake local news sites, and in at least one case, a phony geopolitical think tank, the trolls created their own mini-internet to prop up Trump and spread distrust in his opponent and the election system itself. What’s more, their efforts remain ongoing, years after the election. Using the trove of data, the researchers were able to uncover even more IRA-linked Facebook pages, including one that was updated as recently as May of this year.

All of this demonstrates, according to the report authors, that “over the past five years, disinformation has evolved from a nuisance into high-stakes information war.” And yet, rather than fighting back effectively, Americans are battling each other over what to do about it. “We have conversations about whether or not bots have the right to free speech, we respect the privacy of fake people, and we hold congressional hearings to debate whether YouTube personalities have been unfairly downranked,” the report reads. “It is precisely our commitment to democratic principles that puts us at an asymmetric disadvantage against an adversary who enthusiastically engages in censorship, manipulation, and suppression internally.”

Additional reporting by Brian Barrett.

1 Updated, 12/17/18, 10:15 AM EDT: This story was updated to clarify that the YouTube videos were related to police brutality and Black Lives Matter, not just police brutality.

2 Updated, 12/17/18, 4:05 PM EDT: This story was updated with comment from Google.

DMU Timestamp: July 23, 2019 17:59

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