It long has been obvious that Russians used social media to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — not only to sow confusion and exacerbate divisions, but also to elevate the candidate they favored, Donald Trump. But two studies released Monday by the Senate Intelligence Committee provide shocking specifics about the scope and sophistication of the outrageous effort by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian business linked to the Kremlin, to spread manipulative content online.
One report, by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University and the social media research firm Graphika, demonstrates in granular detail how the IRA successfully harnessed social media to “benefit the Republican Party — and specifically, Donald Trump” and to dampen enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton among African American, gay and lesbian, and liberal voters.
The second report, by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge, documents how the IRA targeted — and misled — African Americans, including by creating domains such as “proudtobeblack.org.” and “donotshoot.us.” One video on an IRA-created YouTube channel was titled: “HILLARY RECEIVED $20,000 DONATION FROM KKK TOWARDS HER CAMPAIGN.” (In February, a federal grand jury indicted the IRA and several Russian individuals on criminal charges related to election interference. The indictment didn’t allege that any American was a knowing participant in the operation.)
The reports, based on data provided by Facebook, Twitter and other companies exploited by the IRA, contain several arresting details about the way the Russians leveraged popular internet services. It was already known that Russian disinformation flowed freely on Facebook, but the New Knowledge report notes that Instagram, a social media app where people share and comment on photos, was even more useful to the Russians. Its authors write: “Our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis.”
One lesson from these studies is that internet companies should help address the disinformation problem by cooperating with public agencies to detect and stop it, as the Oxford report advises, “in a way that respects users’ privacy.” The internet was once seen as an ally of democracy; we now know that it can also empower those who seek to mislead and manipulate.
But there is also a lesson here for Trump, who at times has struggled to acknowledge, let alone condemn, the brazen Russian meddling in our elections. He needs to publicly support efforts by Congress and the intelligence community to confront the threat posed by online disinformation aimed at disrupting democracy in this country.