Russia’s Disinformation War Is Just Getting Started

The disinformation wars are only just getting started, warns a new report on Russian social media interference released by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Published Tuesday, the report offers the most comprehensive look at the efforts of the now-infamous Russian propaganda factory known as the Internet Research Agency to divide Americans, undermine public faith in the democratic process, and aggressively support then-candidate Donald Trump before and after the 2016 election. In addition to affirming much of what had been reported about Russian online interference over the past three years, the report—a second volume from the Senate committee—offers new insights into the extent of past foreign influence operations and recommendations on how best to prepare for those yet to come.

The report is “much more detailed in its analysis, meticulously cited, and concerned with influence and impact,” says Columbia University researcher Jonathan Albright. “The conclusions in the second volume are notably bolder and unequivocal in supporting academic research and the advisory groups’ findings. It reads like a different report altogether.”

Here are the highlights:

The Russian campaign was way more complicated than first understood

Russia’s attempt to exert influence over the 2016 election was far from an isolated incident tied to one campaign, but one part of a “broader, sophisticated, and ongoing information warfare campaign” designed to divide America by inflaming cultural, political, and social tensions. The influence operations began long before 2016 and remain active today, the report says.

The report says that although the IRA’s purchase of online ads on platforms like Facebook received considerable attention from the press and the public, the ads really weren’t all that important. The number of ads Russian operatives bought and used to target American users paled in comparison to the tweets, YouTube videos, Reddit comments, and Facebook and Instagram posts created and shared by IRA operatives posing as normal users. The group made over 61,500 Facebook posts, 116,000 Instagram posts, and 10.4 million tweets, all aimed at sowing discord and inflaming tensions among Americans, says the report.

More than any other group, the IRA aggressively targeted black Americans on every social media platform before and after the 2016 election. More than 95 percent of the content the IRA uploaded to YouTube focused on “racial issues and police brutality,” the report notes, and five of the top 10 IRA accounts on Instagram targeted “African-American issues and audiences.”

The report notes that “numerous high-profile” Americans, including Trump campaign aide Roger Stone, former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, and Fox News host Sean Hannity, “unwittingly spread IRA content by liking IRA tweets or engaging with other IRA social media content, enhancing the potential audience for IRA content by millions of Americans.”

It’s far from over

IRA activity ramped up following the 2016 election, shows no signs of stopping come next year. To combat current and future threats, the report recommends a multi-pronged approach requiring coordination among Congress, social media companies, and the president, despite ongoing hostilities.

The report throws some shade at social media companies, who it says must work with each other to better understand the techniques being used by disinformation mongers, their own vulnerabilities, and best practices. Companies already share some of this information—a relationship credited as aiding in the cross-platform identification of so-called “bad actors” in press releases from Twitter and Facebook—but the report says they don’t go far enough.

The committee describes the current information sharing setup as far too informal, and inspired mostly by its own previous requests. “This should not be a difficult step,” the report says, noting that companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft are already engaged in more extensive information-sharing arrangements to flag and remove terrorist and other violent extremist videos.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired