(WASHINGTON) — A report compiled by private researchers and expected to be released Monday by the Senate intelligence committee says that “active and ongoing” Russian interference operations still exist on social media platforms, and that the Russian operation discovered after the 2016 presidential election was much broader than once thought.
The report was compiled by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge with data provided by the Senate committee from major tech companies Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet, the parent company of Google. Along with another report expected to be released by the panel, it is the first comprehensive analysis of the Russian interference on social media beyond what the companies themselves have said.
The report says that there are still some live accounts tied to the original Internet Research Agency, which was named in an indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller in February for an expansive social media campaign intended to influence the 2016 presidential election. Some of these accounts have a presence on smaller platforms as the major companies have tried to clean up after the Russian activity was discovered.
The report says that none of the companies turned over complete data sets to Congress and some of them “may have misrepresented or evaded” in testimony about the interference by either intentionally or unintentionally downplaying the scope of the problem.
One major takeaway of the study is the breadth of Russian interference that appeared on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook and was not as frequently mentioned when its parent company testified on Capitol Hill. The study says that as attention was focused on Facebook and Twitter in 2017, the Russians shifted much of their activity to Instagram.
The study says that there were 187 million engagements with users on Instagram, while there were 77 million on Facebook.
“Instagram was a significant front in the IRA’s influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in Congressional testimony,” the researchers wrote. They added that “our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis.”
Other findings in the study:
- Russian activity on Twitter was less organized around themes like race or partisanship but more driven by local and current events and made use of occasional pop culture references;
- Facebook posts linked to the IRA “reveal a nuanced and deep knowledge of American culture, media, and influencers in each community the IRA targeted.” Certain memes appeared on pages targeted to younger people but not older people. “The IRA was fluent in American trolling culture,” the researchers say;
- Establishment figures of either party, especially Clinton, were universally panned. Even a tag targeted to feminists criticized Clinton and promoted her primary opponent Bernie Sanders;
- Several posts promoted the Russian agenda in Syria and Syrian President Bashar Assad;
- During the week of the presidential election, posts on right-leaning sites connected to the IRA aimed to generate anger and suspicion and hinted at voter fraud, while posts on sites targeted to African-Americans largely ignored mentions of the election until the last minute.