Report: Instagram Was Major Tool in Russian Campaign

An independent report on the Russian election interference online released by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee Monday (Dec. 17) revealed an extensive, multi-pronged effort to sew division in America, including efforts to affect U.S. elections, 2016 and beyond, one where Instagram played a major part, though a part Facebook did not reveal to Congress during hearings earlier this year on the topic.

It also concluded there was a concerted effort to suppress the vote of African Americans, to support eventual surprising winner Donald Trump and a "comprehensive anti-Hillary campaign."

A collection of divisive IRA-backed memes

A collection of divisive IRA-backed memes

The report, from New Knowledge, focused on the Russian-backed Internet Research Agency (IRA) using data from the committee provided by Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet and others.

That means this report was focused on one of three major forms of interference, what the report called "a sweeping and sustained social influence operation consisting of various coordinated disinformation tactics aimed directly at U.S. citizens, designed to exert political influence and exacerbate social divisions in U.S. culture," conducted by the IRA. The other two are attempts to hack voting systems, and the hack of DNC emails.

Among the key takeaways: "Instagram was a significant front in the IRA’s influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in Congressional testimony," the report said. It also said that was a shift in IRA strategy after the media started covering their Facebook and Twitter operations.

The report also found that the biggest target of the IRA was African American communities as part of a voter-suppression effort, including sewing confusion about voter rules, trying to get those voters to support a third party, and discouraging voting.

Democrats traditionally get the majority of African American votes, while Putin is on record saying he wanted Republican Donald Trump to win. "The IRA had a very clear bias for then-candidate [Trump] that spanned from early in the campaign," the report said.

New Knowledge said there were clearly voter-suppression narratives being spread on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube "despite statements from Twitter and Facebook debating whether it was possible to gauge whether voter suppression content was present..."

Committee leadership focused on the divisiveness of the effort rather than the election implications of who was targeted.

“Increasingly, we’ve seen how social media platforms intended to foster open dialogues can be used by hostile foreign actors seeking to manipulate and subvert public opinion," said Intelligence Committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.). "This newly released data demonstrates how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology, and how the IRA actively worked to erode trust in our democratic institutions. Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped. As we work to address these threats, these reports are proof positive that one of the most important things we can do is increase information sharing between the social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them.”

“These reports demonstrate the extent to which the Russians exploited the fault lines of our society to divide Americans in an attempt to undermine and manipulate our democracy," said Committee vice chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.). "These attacks against our country were much more comprehensive, calculating and widespread than previously revealed. This should stand as a wake up call to us all that none of us are immune from this threat, and it is time to get serious in addressing this challenge.  That is going to require some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media.  I hope these reports will spur legislative action in the Congress and provide additional clarity to the American public about Russia’s assault on our democracy.”

“These reports powerfully confirm some old news: Russia attacked America in 2016. It used every social media trick and platform, and then some, to sabotage our elections and democracy," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). "The sophistication and scope of this coordinated campaign to stoke racial tensions, suppress voters, and sow division should alarm every American."

"More than two years later, President Trump has still failed to hold Russia accountable for any of this despicable interference, which directly benefited his campaign. Protecting the integrity of our democratic institutions should be non-partisan. In the face of the Trump Administration’s failure to stand up to Russia, my Republican colleagues should muster the will to join us in punishing foreign interference and deterring future threats. Facebook, Twitter, and Google must also recognize their responsibility.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.