It’s still early days in our national exploration into how Russia used—and apparently continues to use—social media to influence not just American voters, but American society. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to see that, along with great technological advancements of the last decade, is new direct access to individual Americans for external actors, be they companies or governments or individuals. Recently, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg reluctantly opened up about how Russian-linked accounts and troll farms set out to influence voters, including buying political ads and organizing real campaign events in the U.S. Beyond support for Trump’s helter-skelter candidacy, Russian propaganda always hewed to the underlying objectives of creating chaos and enflaming divisions of all sorts, in order to provoke discord and demoralize, in an effort undermine American social and political institutions.
While the different Russia investigations churn on, undertaking often tedious and technical investigative work, there has been a new public focus on the role of the social media companies in aiding the spread of Russian propaganda. It seems clear enough that it happened, but to what extent? The answer to that is still far from clear, but, like a jigsaw puzzle, slowly certain contours are beginning to come together.
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported Twitter accounts suspected of being linked to Russia flooded social media on both sides of the weekend’s debate over players kneeling for the national anthem at NFL games. The accounts, which are under surveillance, used the hashtags #boycottnfl, #standforouranthem, and #takeaknee to inject themselves into Americans' line of sight online. Twitter is particularly fertile ground for attempts at an influence campaign because, unlike Facebook, it does not require users to confirm their identity. “In addition to Russia-linked Twitter accounts that posed as Americans, the platform was also used for large-scale automated messaging, using ‘bot’ accounts to spread false stories and promote news articles about emails from Democratic operatives that had been obtained by Russian hackers,” the Times notes. “Since last month, researchers at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan initiative of the German Marshall Fund, a public policy research group in Washington, have been publicly tracking 600 Twitter accounts — human users and suspected bots alike — they have linked to Russian influence operations. Those were the accounts pushing the opposing messages on the N.F.L. and the national anthem.”
CNN reported Wednesday on another example of Russian attempts to foment divisions online by buying a Black Lives Matter Facebook ad and geotargetting it specifically to two areas of the country where the issue of police violence was particularly raw: Ferguson and Baltimore. From CNN:
The Black Lives Matter ad appeared on Facebook at some point in late 2015 or early 2016, the sources said. The sources said it appears the ad was meant to appear both as supporting Black Lives Matter but also could be seen as portraying the group as threatening to some residents of Baltimore and Ferguson. New descriptions of the Russian-bought ads shared with CNN suggest that the apparent goal of the Russian buyers was to amplify political discord and fuel an atmosphere of incivility and chaos, though not necessarily to promote one candidate or cause over another… [Russian efforts] ranged from posts promoting Black Lives Matter to posts promoting gun rights and the Second Amendment to posts warning about what they said was the threat undocumented immigrants posed to American democracy.
Another instance of Russia’s strategy in action to induce chaos online comes from the Daily Beast, which reported Wednesday that the Facebook group United Muslims of America is, in fact, linked to the Russian government. The account co-opted the innocuous name of a real, but dormant, non-profit to push disinformation memes into American Muslim communities about Hillary Clinton and others. According to the Daily Beast, the account “claimed Hillary Clinton admitted the U.S. ‘created, funded and armed’ al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State; claimed that John McCain was ISIS’ true founder; whitewashed blood-drenched dictator Moammar Gadhafi and praised him for not having a ‘Rothschild-owned central bank’; and falsely alleged Osama bin Laden was a ‘CIA agent.’ ”