Internet Research Agency Employees Finalize Content for Election Interference
Around February 10, 2016, employees at the Internet Research Agency finalize and circulate an outline of themes for social media content generated by the company. Employees were instructed to focus on “politics and the USA” and to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them)”
One of the many ways the Kremlin appears to have helped the Trump campaign is by financing the online operations of bots (accounts run by computer code masquerading as real people) and trolls (accounts run by real people who are imitating a different demographic) on social media to reinforce the Trump administration’s message.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, on November 10, 2016, Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg denied that Russian bots and trolls had used the website to spread fake news to influence the outcome of the election, calling the allegation a “crazy idea.” Nine days later, President Barack Obama personally warned Zuckerberg to begin taking the threat of fake news more seriously.
For much of the next year, Facebook and other social networks took steps to combat the spread of misinformation online without formally acknowledging that any Russian meddling took place on their platforms during the 2016 election. On December 15, Facebook announced that it would be taking steps to crack down on fake news on its platform by partnering with outside fact-checking organizations to help flag false content for users. As the 2017 presidential election in France approached, the social network reportedly identified and deactivated thousands of accounts that were spreading spam and propaganda, including some reported to be Russian bots.
Facebook ultimately acknowledged that Russia had used its platform to interfere in the election when, on September 6, 2017, the company admitted that Kremlin-linked troll farms had spent at least $100,000 on at least 3,000 advertisements on the social network during the election; the company reportedly made the discovery because the ads were purchased using rubles. While many of these ads supported Trump directly, others favored Senator Bernie Sanders or Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, conforming with the Kremlin’s known strategy of attacking Democratic Party presidential candidate Hillary Clinton from multiple sides. Other ads weighed in on divisive social issues, such as Black Lives Matter, gun control, and illegal immigration.
Along with spreading messages, some of the Kremlin-linked Facebook ads called for real-world action. For example, one page now known to have been operated by Russians called “Secured Borders” organized, advertised, then cancelled an anti-refugee rally in Twin Falls, Idaho, on August 26, 2016. Another ad, this one from a group called “Being Patriotic,” touted a “Down With Hillary!” rally in New York City on July 23, 2016.
Investigators have since discovered content from Russian bots and troll farms on several other social networks, including Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. On September 28, 2017, Twitter announced that it had identified approximately 200 accounts believed to be tied to the Russian sources who purchased political ads on Facebook. On November 2, Twitter released a 65-page document enumerating some 2,752 Russian trolls and bots it had discovered on its platform and subsequently deactivated. Much of the activity from both companies has focused on a now-defunct Kremlin-linked troll farm called the Internet Research Agency. In February 2018, the Special Counsel indicted 13 Russian nationals and three entities affiliated with the Internet Research Agency for allegedly embarking on an “information warfare” scheme during the 2016 election.
Since revealing that Kremlin-linked companies had purchased ads on its platform, Facebook has announced additional features intended to combat the spread of Russian propaganda. On November 22, for example, the company announced that it would be informing users of whether they had liked any posts by or followed any Kremlin-linked accounts. The network also announced on December 18 that it will be implementing a feature requiring that political ads disclose the identity of their purchaser.