A pair of reports prepared for the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence detail the extent of “Russian influence operations” on social media — including posts trying to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
One of the reports was obtained on Sunday by The Washington Post; it was compiled by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University and the analysis firm Graphika. The other was compiled by New Knowledge, Columbia University, and Canfield Research and was released on Monday.
Together they provide a comprehensive look at how the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA), which Mueller indicted on criminal charges earlier this year, used different social media platforms, and different content strategies to sow partisan discord.
One of the surprising findings in the reports was that disinformation campaigns continued after news outlets pointed to Russian interference, or even specifically reported on the IRA, like Adrian Chen for The New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker. Instead they “redirected” their focus – with Mueller and former FBI director James Comey, who was fired by President Trump in May of 2017, the new targets.
“As articles began to emerge about election interference – pointing the finger at Russia – the IRA didn’t shy away or ignore it,” the report by New Knowledge said. “It used derision and disparagement in content targeting the Right-leaning pages, to create and amplify the narrative that the whole investigation was nonsense, that Comey and Mueller were corrupt, and that the emerging Russia stories were a ‘weird conspiracy’ pushed by ‘liberal crybabies.'”
“As facets of the investigation trickled out over 2017, the Right-targeted accounts justified, dismissed, normalized, and redirected,” the report continued.
One example is a meme that reads, “Russia special counsel Robert Mueller worked with radical Islamic groups to purge anti-terrorism training material offensive to Muslims.”
Other memes target Comey, who was initially in charge of the Russia investigation, before he was fired by Trump, leading to the appointment of Mueller. Comey has become a partisan figure given his role in both investigating Hillary Clinton over her private email server and investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election as well as possible collusion with the Trump campaign.
Other unexpected facts from the report include the surprisingly robust use of Instagram at levels and the IRA’s targeting of the Black community with an aim to spreading confusion and suppressing voters.
“Between 2013 and 2018, the IRA’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter campaigns reached tens of millions of users in the United States,” the Computational Propaganda Project report explained.
“Surprisingly, these campaigns did not stop once Russia’s IRA was caught interfering in the 2016 election,” the report noted, with a tone of surprise.
In fact, engagement rates increased at this point and even broadened to cover a new range of public policy issues, national security challenges, and importantly, the issues that grab younger, Instagram-using voters, the report added.