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Report aided by US senate body focuses on Russia’s social media clout

Updated December 18, 2018


The Russians’ attempts to influence Americans on social media first became widely public in the fall of 2017.  — File
The Russians’ attempts to influence Americans on social media first became widely public in the fall of 2017. — File

WASHINGTON: A report compiled by private researchers and expected to be released this week by the US 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 US Senate committee from major tech companies Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

“With at least some of the Russian government’s goals achieved in the face of little diplomatic or other pushback, it appears likely that the United States will continue to face Russian interference for the foreseeable future,” the researchers wrote.

Read: Russia’s growing influence cause of concern: US general

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.

Instagram, key battleground

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.

The researchers added that “our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis”.

Reaching smaller sites

The Russian activity went far beyond the three tech companies that provided information, the report says, reaching many smaller sites as well.

It details the sophisticated attempts to infiltrate internet games, browser extensions and music apps.

The Russians even used social media to encourage users of the game Pokemon Go which was at peak popularity in the months before the 2016 presidential election to use politically divisive usernames, for example.

The report discusses even more unconventional ways that the Russian accounts attempted to connect with Americans and recruit assets, such as selling merchandise with certain messages, specific follower requests, job offers and even help lines that could encourage people to unknowingly disclose sensitive information that could be used against them.

The Russians’ attempts to influence Americans on social media first became widely public in the fall of 2017.

Support for Assange

Also, notable is the study’s finding that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was favourably treated in posts aimed at both left-leaning and right-leaning users.

The report says there were a number of posts expressing support for Assange and Wikileaks, including several in October 2016 just before WikiLeaks released hacked emails from Hillary.

Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2018