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4 main takeaways from new reports on Russia’s 2016 election interference

One includes Russia’s deliberate targeting of African Americans online.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 political landscape — and presidential election — was a much wider effort than previously understood.

Two new reports released on Monday, prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee by independent researchers, reveal that Moscow’s intelligence officials reached millions of social media users between 2013 and 2017, in part by exploiting existing political and racial divisions in American society. Vox obtained the two reports before their planned release.

Using data provided by social media companies to the Senate panel, researchers from New Knowledge, Columbia University, and Canfield Research along with others from the University of Oxford and Graphika have for the first time revealed a broad extent of the years-long efforts by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a group of Russian agents that use social media to influence politics.

Special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 IRA members in February for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

Taken together, the reports are bad news for President Donald Trump. They clearly show that Russia aimed to help him win the election and hurt Hillary Clinton, although none of the reports say Russia’s efforts definitively won the White House for Trump or changed any votes.

There’s a lot to unpack in the reports. Here are the four main takeaways.

1) Russia favored Trump over Clinton

The IRA’s content unquestionably favored Trump over his opponent, supporting him as early as the primaries. Pro-Trump content featured mainly on conservative pages and rarely appeared in left-leaning circles.

There are other pieces of evidence. One is that Russia aimed to stop people from voting, and lower turnout historically favors Republican candidates. Another shows that the IRA disparaged Clinton in nearly all of its social media pages on every platform, regardless of whether the page targeted conservatives, liberals, or racial and ethnic groups.

And here’s one of the more shocking revelations: Russia promoted violence in the event of a Trump loss.

In nearly 110 Facebook posts including fake images of election machine error messages or ballots, the IRA targeted conservative users with false information about supposed widespread voter fraud aimed at helping Clinton win. More than 70 of those posts went up the month before the election. They made a variety of false claims, including that states were secretly working to help Clinton win; that militias were organizing to stop the fraud; and that citizens could call a (fake) 1-800 number to report discrepancies.

Posts also aimed to boost Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) — Clinton’s toughest primary challenger — and Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

Put together, it’s now clearer than ever that Russia did what it could to make Trump look good and Clinton look bad throughout the entirety of its online campaign.

2) Russia especially targeted African Americans

“The most prolific IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted Black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing Black audiences and recruiting Black Americans as assets.”

That’s one of the stunning conclusions from the report by researchers from New Knowledge, Columbia University, and Canfield Research LLC. In other words, Russia deliberately aimed to sow and exploit racial divisions in the United States.

The IRA created domain names such as blackvswhite.info, blackmattersusa.com, and blacktolive.org. It made YouTube channels — such as “Cop Block US” and “Don’t Shoot” — to spread anti-Clinton videos. About 1,060 videos produced by 10 distinct channels discussed Black Lives Matter or violent police actions; 571 of the videos included keywords about the police and their abuses.

Some of the IRA’s work focused on Muslim or Christian culture, Texas culture, and even LGBTQ culture, but no other racial or social group received as much attention from the Russians as black Americans.

“While other distinct ethnic and religious groups were the focus of one or two Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts, the Black community was targeted extensively with dozens; this is why we have elected to assess the messaging directed at Black Americans as a distinct and significant operation,” the report says.

What’s worse, Russia found unwitting Americans to serve as assets who helped spread the IRA’s propaganda. According to the report, that tactic “was substantially more pronounced” on accounts that targeted black social media users.

The report doesn’t explain why the IRA targeted African Americans most of all. One possibility, though, is that black voters skew more Democratic, and the election occurred during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, which sharply divided liberals and conservatives. Targeting Black Americans — and trying to keep them from either voting for Clinton or voting altogether — would serve to help Trump.

3) Russian content focused mainly on political and national security issues, not the election itself

Only 11 percent of the IRA’s social media content was about the election, leading people to engage with it about 246 million times.

A lot of the content had to do with gun rights, veterans issues, patriotism, feminism, and even the movement to have California secede from the US. It’s very likely, though, that the IRA aimed to stoke divisions based on those issues in part to influence the election.

National security issues also featured prominently in the IRA’s content, including the war in Syria — a conflict in which Russia has a huge stake. Instagram and Facebook had 3,000 posts on Syria alone.

“[A]cross all targeted communities,” one report reads, the IRA used “narratives to convey Russian’s state-sanctioned talking points on the Syrian conflict.” Russia even had three channels — which produced 30 videos — about the Syrian civil war and other conflicts in the Middle East.

Syria content was surprisingly consistent among all targeted groups — racial, ethnic, and ideological — “but the nuance was tailored for each group,” the New Knowledge-led report says. The narrative mainly supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia’s actions in the country, which includes financial and military support for the Assad regime.

4) Russia’s use of social media was wider than we thought

Facebook and Twitter have received the bulk of the attention and blame regarding Russia’s use of their platforms to influence the election. But the two reports show the trolls used multiple websites to disseminate their narratives.

Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Medium, YouTube, Vine, and Google+, among others, carried IRA propaganda content. But Instagram was by far the most used platform that has largely remained out of the public eye.

The Facebook-owned company saw an estimated 20 million users engage roughly 187 million times with IRA content. (By contrast, Facebook saw 76.5 million engagements that reached about 126 million people.) In fact, Russia moved much of its operations to Instagram in 2017, when most of the world’s attention centered on Facebook and Twitter.

As the report notes, Facebook executives seemingly avoided addressing the extent of Instagram’s use by Russia during open congressional testimony.