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New Senate Report Shines Light On Extent Of Russia’s Election-Year Trolling

Russia’s campaign to undermine the 2016 presidential election was larger than previously suspected and included attempts at using social media to suppress the black vote, according to a new Senate report.

Russian actors used an array of Instagram posts to suppress Democratic votes in the leadup to the election, cybersecurity firm New Knowledge noted in a report Monday to Senate Intelligence Committee. The new report suggests the Instagram tactic dwarfed the Facebook campaign by magnitudes.

“Active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms,” the report notes. One Russian campaign, which is ongoing according to New Knowledge, seeks to influence opinion on Syria by promoting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and a Russian ally in the brutal conflict.

The Internet Research Agency spread messages through YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Google+, along with Facebook and Twitter, which were the main point of attack before Monday’s report. The black community was targeted “extensively with dozens” of Facebook pages and Instagram post, the report notes.

IRA targeted users who had shown interest in black history, the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X, among other minority groups The most popular of the Russian Instagram accounts was @blackstagram, with 303,663 followers. The report’s authors noted that the company exploited traditional societal schisms to fracture the electorate.

IRA “leveraged pre-existing, legitimate grievances wherever they could,” Renee DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge, told reporters. The Black Lives Matter movement was heating up when the campaign first began, in 2014, so the Russian operation added “Blue Lives Matter” material as narratives shifted, DiResta

“Very real racial tensions and feelings of alienation exist in America, and have for decades,” DiResta said. “The I.R.A. didn’t create them. It exploits them.” Much of New Knowledge’s reporting is not new – reports in 2017 showed the extent to which the company used various media to splinter groups during the last presidential election.

The report amplifies previous reporting. It shows that IRA’s presence on Instagram has been underestimated – New Knowledge argues that there were 187 million engagements on Instagram, with users sharing and “liking” content created by Russia — that number dwarfs the 76.5 million engagements on Facebook. Google ads were also exploited, but to a much lesser extent.

Still, there is disagreement about the degree with which the ads swayed opinion. Most of the ads did not focus exclusively on then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump or then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and the ad sales merely amounted to $100,000.

Facebook, for instance, said in 2017 that it found roughly 3,000 ads were connected to the Russian company, and around 470 inauthentic accounts and pages also appeared to be connected to that firm, which likely promoted the ads.

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