Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Fraud Management & Cybercrime , Government

Russian Social Media Interference Continues, Reports Warn

Facebook, Google and Twitter's Defenses Don't Appear to Be Blocking Campaigns
Russian Social Media Interference Continues, Reports Warn
The former headquarters of the Internet Research Agency, the source of Russian social media misinformation campaigns (Photo: Google)

The battle against Russian disinformation is far from over. Two in-depth reports released on Monday have revealed a disturbing trend: Such campaigns are continuing, despite efforts by social media companies to cleanse their platforms.

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The reports, commissioned by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, analyze a large batch of social media content turned over to Congress by Twitter, Facebook and Google as part of the committee's investigation into online disinformation campaigns that targeted the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Both reports are critical of the technology firms, contending that the data they shared with researchers was hard to work with or incomplete, making it more difficult to assess the scale and reach of Russia's efforts.

But both reports affirm previous suspicions that Russia created divisive social media campaigns to stir anxiety over democratic processes, push voters to vote for Donald Trump, and discourage individuals - particularly minorities - from voting. Some of the campaigns were widely shared and "liked," demonstrating that the Russian actors were "fluent in American trolling culture," one report says.

Content created by Russian disinformation operatives displayed a nuanced and deep understanding of American culture, according to New Knowledge.

Instagram Targeted

Researchers examined the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg, Russia-based operation that trained 1,000 people in running disinformation campaigns designed to target the U.S., Russia and Ukraine.

In October, U.S. prosecutors announced charges against Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, 44, of St. Petersburg. She was accused of being the chief accountant for "Project Lakhta," which funded disinformation campaigns via such entities as the IRA (see: Feds Charge Russian With Midterm Election Interference).

One of the reports issued Monday, authored by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge, concludes that the IRA began focusing much more last year on Instagram as scrutiny on its disinformation campaigns via Facebook and Twitter intensified.

"Our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis," according to the report, titled "The Tactics and Tropes of the Internet Research Agency."

Even after the IRA was outed as a troll farm, the number of posts and ads placed by the organization continued to increase on Instagram and Facebook in early 2017, according to the second report, which was authored by the University of Oxford's Computational Propaganda Project and the social network analysis firm Graphika.

"Engagement rates increased and covered a wide range of public policy issues, national security issues and issues pertinent to young voters," the report says.

This IRA post from Jan. 23, 2017 clocked the most engagement on Facebook, New Knowledge says.

The two reports look not only at Russian disinformation campaigns, but also social media firms' response. And New Knowledge's report also takes direct aim at public statements made by Facebook and Google before Congress, suggesting the companies underreported the amount of malicious activity on their networks and possibly feigned ignorance about the goals of the disinformation campaigns.

"Regrettably, it appears that the platforms may have misrepresented or evaded in some of their statements to Congress; one platform claimed that no specific groups were targeted (this is only true speaking strictly of ads), while another dissembled about whether or not the Internet Research Agency created content to discourage voting (it did)," New Knowledge's report says. "It is unclear whether these answers were the result of faulty or lacking analysis, or a more deliberate evasion."

The Power of Memes

Facebook tells Information Security Media Group in a statement: "We've made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy."

The IRA's meme-based content on Instagram - which only supports videos, photos and captions - appeared to drive more engagement than efforts the IRA made directly on Facebook, New Knowledge concludes. But it is possible that the IRA was pumping up that apparent engagement by using bots, it says.

"Instagram was a significant front in the IRA's influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in Congressional testimony," New Knowledge's report says.

Russian propaganda typically sought to portray Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a negative light, the two studies say.

Facebook says it continues to cooperate with investigations into the IRA's activity on its main platform and Instagram. But it shifted the responsibility for seeing the bigger picture, claiming that "Congress and the intelligence community are best placed to use the information we and others provide to determine the political motivations of actors like the Internet Research Agency."

The data sets analyzed by the studies included 10.4 million tweets, 116,000 Instagram posts, 61,500 Facebook posts and 1,100 YouTube videos.

Insufficient YouTube Data

The University of Oxford and Graphika's study showed that YouTube was primarily used to target African-Americans. But it says that quantifying the YouTube activity was difficult because Google only provided videos, with no metadata or other context. To study the videos' reach, the researchers looked to tweets that had cited the YouTube content, which mostly revolved around the Black Lives Matter movement and police brutality.

"Messaging to African-Americans sought to divert their political energy away from established political institutions by preying on anger with structural inequalities faced by African-Americans, including police violence, poverty and disproportionate levels of incarceration," the report says.

In a statement provided to ISMG, Google appeared to try and dispel the notion that bad actors could have used YouTube to target specific audiences.

"We conducted an in-depth investigation across multiple product areas, and provided a detailed and thorough report to investigators," Google says. "As we said at the time, videos on YouTube are viewable by anyone. Users can create videos intended for certain audiences, but there is no way to target by race on Google or YouTube."

New Knowledge, however, has previously rebutted a similar statement Google made before Congress, writing that the search giant "is perhaps using 'target' in the paid sense, but appears disingenuous."

About the Author

Jeremy Kirk

Jeremy Kirk

Executive Editor, Security and Technology, ISMG

Kirk was executive editor for security and technology for Information Security Media Group. Reporting from Sydney, Australia, he created "The Ransomware Files" podcast, which tells the harrowing stories of IT pros who have fought back against ransomware.

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