Lost in Obstruction: Russia's Active Measures on Social Media

     This post looks at Russia’s social media campaign to attack the 2016 election.


     Its purpose is to highlight important information that the obstruction campaign of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party is trying to obscure for political benefit.


     All information is taken from the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.


     Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) conducted an “active measures” social media campaign to influence the 2016 election. This resulted in a grand jury indicting 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for election interference.


     “Active measures” typically refers to operations conducted by Russian security services aimed at influencing the course of international affairs. The IRA began targeting the United States as early as 2014.


     Facebook identified 470 IRA-controlled accounts that collectively made 80,000 posts between January 2015, and August 2017. These posts reached at least 29 million people and as many as 126 million.


     Twitter identified 3,814 IRA-controlled accounts and notified approximately 1.4 million people it believed may have been in contact with an IRA-controlled account. In the 10 weeks before the election they produced about 175,000 tweets, approximately 8.4 percent were election-related.


     To reach large audiences, the IRA purchased advertisements through Facebook. It bought over 3,500 in ads at a cost of about $100,000.


     Using fictitious persons, IRA employees began social media accounts and group pages designed to attract U.S. audiences and address divisive political and social issues. IRA employees traveled to the United States in 2014 on an intelligence gathering mission to obtain information and photographs for use on their social media posts.


     Dozens of IRA employees were responsible for operating accounts on different social media platforms. The IRA referred to them as “specialists.” Starting in 2014 the IRA’s operation focused on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. It later added specialists who operated on Tumblr and Instagram.


     Initially, the IRA created social media accounts that pretended to be individual people. By early 2015 it began to create larger social media groups or public social media pages covering a range of political issues that it falsely claimed were affiliated with U.S. political and grassroots operations.


     They started out by posting derogatory information about a number of presidential candidates, but by early-to-mid 2016 the operation was supporting the Trump campaign and disparaging Clinton.


     On Twitter, specialists followed two strategies: create fake individual accounts and a network of automated accounts (bots) that enabled it to amplify existing content on Twitter. The IRA continuously posted original content while also communicating with Twitter users directly through public tweeting or direct messaging.


     These tweets provoked reaction and retweets from various quarters, including the general public, the media, some high-profile individuals and people associated with the Trump campaign. In the media’s case, it quoted some IRA-produced tweets and attributed them to the reactions of real people.


     The IRA targeted U.S. citizens who could be used to advance its operational goals. It recruited across the political spectrum. It also recruited moderators of conservative social media groups to promote IRA-generated content, as well as recruiting individuals to perform political acts.


     The IRA organized and promoted dozens of political rallies. Attendance varied. Some appear to have drawn few, if any, people, while others drew hundreds.


     The Mueller investigation identified two different forms of communications between the IRA and members of the Trump campaign. The first was getting members and surrogates of the campaign to promote pro-Trump or anti-Clinton content created by the IRA, usually by linking, retweeting or similar methods of reposting.


     Trump campaign affiliates promoted dozens of tweets, posts and other political content created by the IRA. These posts included allegations of voter fraud, as well as claims that Clinton has mishandled classified information.


     Second, in a few instances, IRA employees, representing themselves as U.S. political activists, communicated with members of the campaign to seek assistance and coordination of IRA-organized political rallies. Some volunteers did agree to help.


     It should be noted that the investigation found no evidence that anyone with the Trump campaign understood that the requests were coming from foreign nationals. Also, the investigation did not identify evidence of any United States citizens who intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operations.

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