Russian efforts to help elect President Trump focused intensely on exploiting racial tensions to suppress voter turnout among minorities, a campaign that proved more far-reaching and effective than previously understood, according to reports released Monday by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
More than 30 million Facebook and Instagram users shared propaganda messages generated as part of a campaign by Russia’s Internet Research Agency to polarize and misinform voters, according to the reports commissioned by the committee. The activities of Russian operatives and their crafting of messages in which they often posed as minority activists have been known for some time, but the new reports reveal extensive additional detail about how that operation spread such threads of misinformation far and wide.
“The most prolific IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted Black American communities and appear to have been focused on developed Black audiences and recruiting Black Americans as assets,” said one of the reports, commissioned by the committee from the research firm New Knowledge. “The IRA exploited the trust of their page audiences to develop human assets, at least some of whom were not aware of the role they played. The tactic was substantially more pronounced on Black-targeted accounts.”
The release of the reports opens a new chapter in the investigation on Capitol Hill into Russian election interference, sparking anger among Democrats and civil rights activists who noted that the Russian focus on alienating black voters ran parallel to Trump campaign efforts to do the same. The reports, while offering no evidence of collusion, gave Democrats and federal prosecutors fresh fodder for their investigations into the possibility that the Russians and people close to Trump cooperated.
But the tactics are also consistent with a historic pattern in which Russian propagandists have used racial tensions in America to further their goals. In Soviet times, Russian agents worked diligently to fan the flames of racial discord in America, as they became a potent argument against capitalism. The techniques have evolved, but the goals of disrupting the American political system remain similar.
News of the far reach of the Russian campaign to suppress the black vote alarmed voting rights activists, who said the Russian campaign should not be viewed in isolation from continuing efforts by Trump and other Republicans to limit minority turnout.
“These threats are not separate phenomena,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “They are closely related attempts to use race and racism in America to divide the electorate and subjugate Americans of color.”
Trump’s upset victory in 2016 depended on his winning in three big states — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — where he prevailed over Hillary Clinton by a combined total of 77,744 votes out of some 129 million cast nationwide.
Black turnout in the election declined 7% nationwide from the level of 2012, with particularly sharp drops in both Michigan and Wisconsin. In addition, the vote for Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, who was touted in some of the Russian-linked propaganda, exceeded Trump’s margin in all three states.
The reports intensified pressure on companies that own social media platforms to do more to protect voters from misinformation, and raised fresh questions as to whether the companies have been fully transparent with investigators about what is getting transmitted and shared through them.
“These attacks against our country were much more comprehensive, calculating and widespread than previously revealed,” said committee Vice Chairman Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). He called for legislation that creates “some much-needed and long overdue guardrails when it comes to social media.”
Some key Republicans were also jolted by the report, including committee Chairman Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, who said the data revealed by New Knowledge and another report by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and a firm called Graphika demonstrate “how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology.” He called on social media companies to share more of their data with analysts engaged in finding and confronting the campaigns.
The New Knowledge report took aim at the social media platforms for continuing to withhold some key data from the committee and also misleading Congress in the past. “Regrettably, it appears that the platforms may have misrepresented or evaded in some of their statements to Congress,” the report said. The authors said earlier testimony by the companies inappropriately downplayed the targeted nature of the Russian campaign and the extent to which it was meant to discourage certain groups from voting.
“It is unclear whether these answers were the result of faulty or lacking analysis, or a more deliberate evasion,” the report said.
Google declined to comment on the reports. Twitter and Facebook released separate statements pointing to the steps they have taken since 2016 that were aimed at increasing transparency and confronting foreign interference in U.S. elections.
“As we've said all along, 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,” said the statement from Facebook. “We've provided thousands of ads and pieces of content to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for review and shared information with the public about what we found.”
The reports highlighted the extent to which another platform the company owns, Instagram, has been exploited by the Russians. “Instagram was a significant front in the IRA’s influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in congressional testimony,” the New Knowledge report said.
Propaganda posted on Instagram by the Russians lured almost 185 million likes, and some 4 million comments. Almost all of them appeared on 40 pages on the photo-oriented platform. Instagram had not previously been identified as a major target for the IRA, and the report suggested the heavy use of it by the Russians signaled they see it as fertile ground.
The Russians often focused their efforts on content that would be indistinguishable from that posted by homegrown American activists. Much of it wasn’t specific to the election or even sowed messages of division, but emphasized community building.
The front groups they created, with names like Blacktivist, BlackMatters and Blackfirst, would lure followers with posts on a wide range of topics such as black entrepreneurship or religion. They enlisted unwitting Americans to provide content on issues of interest and encouraged followers to send in photos and videos and participate in contests. The pages would often promote news items from the black media and even GoFundMe campaigns for causes of particular interest to African Americans.
All that enabled the propagandists to develop pages with huge followings, the report said, noting that the group’s 30 Facebook pages targeted at blacks attracted nearly 1.2 million followers. That approach also threw law enforcement and in-house analysts at the social media companies off their trail.
With the immense membership in the pages established, the Russian administrators embarked on a campaign of persuasion that at times was subtle and at times not-so-subtle. But even the missives attacking Clinton as a fraud, those calling on blacks to boycott the election altogether or to vote for Stein, and those accusing the mainstream media of lies were not easy to distinguish from legitimate American pages. The reports said many of the posts amplifying the themes the Russians were promoting to disrupt the election came from American activists unaware they were participating in the scheme.
The effort was bolstered by fake news stories announcing that fed-up blacks would be sitting out the election en mass.
The disclosures came as many lawmakers say they have lost patience with the inability of social media platforms to effectively confront the Russian threat and the limited transparency with which they operate. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who will take over as the chair of the Intelligence Committee in January, said hedging and obfuscating by the firms made the House investigation into Russian election interference “far more difficult than it should have been.”
“Congress must hold these companies accountable,” Schiff said.