Meddling in US ‘wider than believed’

Russian leader Vladimir Putin
Russian leader Vladimir Putin
Image: REUTERS/ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO

Russian interference with the 2016 US presidential election involved every major social media platform and was particularly aimed at suppressing black voters, two new reports have found.

The reports for the US Senate Intelligence Committee analysed data from major technology companies and confirmed that the Kremlin operation was even wider than previously thought.

They found that Russia also stepped up its campaign during 2017, seeking to bolster support for President Donald Trump, and unleashed a torrent of propaganda on Instagram.

The Instagram posts may have been even more extensive than its use of Facebook.

The reports give the clearest picture yet of the massive disinformation operation run by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg.

One report was produced by the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project and the social media analysis firm Graphika, the other by US cybersecurity company New Knowledge and Columbia University. They studied millions of social media posts, concluding Russian efforts remain “active and ongoing,” and would be for the “foreseeable future”.

While Russia sought to demoralise Hispanic, millennial, and LGBTQ voters, there was a special focus on discouraging black Americans from going to the polls.

The Oxford study said black voters were encouraged to “boycott” the election as the Russians “spread cynicism and preyed on anger with structural inequalities including police violence, poverty, and disproportionate levels of incarceration”. “A host of sites were set up, including blackvswhite.info, blacktivist.info, and blackmattersusa.com, while “extreme right-wing voters were encouraged to be more confrontational,” it said.

The Oxford report said: “Differential messaging to each of these target groups was designed to push and pull them in different ways.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party – and specifically, Donald Trump.”

The New Knowledge report pointed out that social media companies should have picked up Russian operations earlier.

It said this because many of the early advertisements they bought were paid for in rubles, and had Russian telephone numbers associated with them.

Researchers also concluded that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was the subject of favourable Russian posts shortly before his website released hacked e-mails embarrassing to the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.

The reports found the operation to influence US voters stretched back to 2013, long before it was seeking to promote Trump.

It revealed a “nuanced and deep knowledge of American culture, media, and influencers in each community targeted”.

Russia has denied it meddled in the US election, contrary to the conclusion of US intelligence agencies.

Earlier this year, special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies, with an alleged conspiracy to tamper with the US presidential race.

The Kremlin on Tuesday rejected Washington’s accusations that Russia tried to disrupt the 2016 presidential vote and sought to demoralise African-Americans, calling the charges incomprehensible.

According to one report, the primary goal of Russia’s Internet Research Agency was to deepen divisions in US society and convince Democrat-favouring liberals not to vote.

There was an emphasis on provoking black Americans.

For example, the IRA-created account “Black Matters” posted on Facebook: “Cops kill black kids. Are you sure that your son won’t be the next?”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the report caused “nothing but incomprehension”.

“It voices absolutely general charges and accusations and some of them are absolutely unclear to us,” Peskov said on a conference call.

He reiterated Russia’s longstanding position that any such claims were unfounded.

The Internet Research Agency is believed to have been set up by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman close to Putin, as a propaganda tool.

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