As noted in the previous post, recently, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the second of five planned volumes detailing its findings and recommendations arising from Russia’s actions during the 2016 U.S. election.In “The Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate On Russian Active Measures Campaigns And Interference In the 2016 U.S. Election: Volume 2: Russia’s Use Of Social Media,” the committee explained:
In 2016, Russian operatives associated with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) used social media to conduct an information warfare campaign designed to spread disinformation and societal division in the United States.
Masquerading as Americans, these operatives used targeted advertisements, intentionally falsified news articles, self-generated content, and social media platform tools to interact with and attempt to deceive tens of millions of social media users in the United States. This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government’s covert support of Russia’s favored candidate in the U.S. presidential election.
The committee made a number of key findings, including:
- The Committee found, that the IRA sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton’s chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin.
- The Committee found that the IRA’s information warfare campaign was broad in scope and entailed objectives beyond the result of the 2016 presidential election. Further, the Committee’s analysis of the IRA’s activities on social media supports the key judgments of the January 6, 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” that “Russia’s, goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” However, where the Intelligence Community assessed that the Russian government “aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him,” the Committee found that IRA social media activity was overtly and almost invariably supportive of then-candidate Trump, and to the detriment of Secretary Clinton’s campaign.
- The Committee found that the Russian government tasked and supported the IRA’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. This finding is consistent with the Committee’s understanding of the relationship between IRA owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin and the Kremlin, the aim and scope of the interference by the IRA, and the correlation between the IRA’s actions and electoral interference by the Russian government in other contexts and by other means. Despite Moscow’s denials, the direction and financial involvement of Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, as well as his close ties to high-level Russian government officials including President Vladimir Putin, point to significant Kremlin support, authorization, and direction of the IRA’s operations and goals.
- The Committee found that Russia’s targeting of the 2016 U.S. presidential election was part of a broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign designed to sow discord in American politics and society. Moreover, the IRA conducted a vastly more complex and strategic assault on the United States than was initially understood. The IRA’s actions in 2016 represent only the latest installment in an increasingly brazen interference by the Kremlin on the citizens and democratic institutions of the United States.
- Analysis of the behavior of the IRA-associated social media accounts makes dear that while the Russian information warfare campaign exploited the context of the election and election-related issues in 2016, the preponderance of the operational focus, as reflected repeatedly in content, account names, and audiences targeted, was on socially divisive issues-such as race, immigration, and Second Amendment rights-in an attempt to pit Americans against one another and against their government. The Committee found that IRA influence operatives consistently used hot-button, societal divisions in the United States as fodder for the content they published through social media in order to stoke anger, provoke outrage and protest, push Americans further away from one another, and foment distrust in government institutions. The divisive 2016 U.S. presidential election was just an additional feature of a much more expansive, target-rich landscape of potential ideological and societal sensitivities.
- The Committee found that the IRA targeted not only Hillary Clinton, but also Republican candidates during the presidential primaries. For example, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were targeted and denigrated, as was Jeb Bush. As Clint Watts, a former FBI Agent and expert in social media weaponization, testified to the Committee, “Russia’s media outlets and covert trolls sought to sideline opponents on both sides of the geopolitical spectrum with adversarial views towards the Kremlin.” IRA operators sought to impact primaries for both major parties and “may have helped sink the hopes of candidates more hostile to Russian interests long before the field narrowed.”
- The Committee found that no single group of Americans was targeted by IRA information operatives more than African-Americans. By far, race and related issues were the preferred target of the information warfare campaign designed to divide the country in 2016. Evidence of the IRA’s overwhelming operational emphasis on race is’ evident in the IRA’s Facebook advertisement content (over 66 percent contained a term related to race) and targeting (locational targeting was principally aimed at African-Americans in key metropolitan areas with), its Facebook pages (one of the IRA’s top-performing pages, “Blacktivist,” generated 11.2 million engagements with Facebook users), its Instagram content (five of the top 10 Instagram accounts were focused on African-American issues and audiences), its Twitter content (heavily focused on hot-button issues with racial undertones, such as the NFL kneeling protests), and its YouTube activity (96 percent of the IRA’s YouTube content was targeted at racial issues and police· brutality).
- The Committee found that paid advertisements were not key to the IRA’s activity, and moreover, are not alone an accurate measure of the IRA’s operational scope, scale, objectives, despite this aspect of social media being a focus of early press reporting and public awareness. An emphasis on the relatively small number of advertisements, and the cost of those advertisements, has detracted focus from the more prevalent use of original, free content via multiple social media platforms. According to Facebook, the IRA spent a total-of about $100,000 over two years on advertisements-a minor amount, given the operational costs of the IRA were approximately $1.25 million dollars a month. The nearly 3,400 Facebook and Instagram advertisements the IRA purchased are comparably minor in relation to the over 61,500 Facebook posts, 116,000 Instagram posts, and 10.4 million tweets that were the original creations of IRA influence operatives, disseminated under the guise of authentic user activity.
- The Committee found that the IRA coopted unwitting Americans to engage in offline activities in furtherance of their objectives. The IRA’s online influence operations were not constrained to the unilateral dissemination of content in the virtual realm, and its operatives were not just focused on inciting anger and provoking division on the internet. Instead, the IRA also persuaded Americans to deepen their engagement with IRA operatives. For example, the IRA targeted African-Americans over social media and attempted and succeeded in some cases to influence their targets to sign petitions, share personal information, and teach self-defense training courses. In addition, posing as U.S. political activists, the IRA requested-and in some cases obtained-assistance from the Trump Campaign in procuring materials for rallies and in promoting and organizing the rallies.
- The Committee found that the IRA was not Russia’s only vector for attempting to influence the United States through social media in 2016. Publicly available information showing additional influence operations emanating from Russia unrelated to IRA activity make clear the Kremlin was not reliant exclusively on the IRA in 2016. Russia’s intelligence services, including the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian (GRU), also exploited U.S. social media platforms as a vehicle for influence operations. Information acquired by the Committee from intelligence oversight, social media companies, the Special Counsel’s investigative findings, and research by commercial cybersecurity companies all reflect the Russian government’s use of the GRU to carry out another core vector of attack on the 2016 election: the dissemination of hacked materials.
- The Committee found that IRA activity on social media did not cease, but rather increased after Election Day 2016. The data reveal increases in IRA activity across multiple social media platforms, post-Election Day 2016: Instagram activity increased 238 percent, Facebook increased 59 percent, Twitter increased 52 percent, and YouTube citations went up by 84 percent. As John Kelly noted: “After election day, the Russian government stepped on the gas. Accounts operated by the IRA troll farm became more active after the election, confirming again that the assault on our democratic process is. much bigger than the attack on a single election.’
- Though all of the known IRA-related accounts from the Committee’s data set were suspended or taken down in the fall of2017, outside researchers continue to uncover additional IRA social media accounts dedicated to spreading malicious content. According to an October 2018 study of more than 6.6 million tweets linking to publishers of intentionally false news and conspiracy stories, in the months before the 2016 U.S. election, “more than 80% of the disinformation accounts in our election maps are still active … [and] continue to publish more than a million tweets in a typical day.”