On Thursday, Attorney General William Barr released the long-anticipated Mueller report. With it comes a helpful overview of how Russia leveraged U.S.-based social media platforms to earn its political ends.
While we’ve yet to find too much in the heavily redacted text that we didn’t already know, Mueller does recap efforts undertaken by Russia’s bizarre Internet Research Agency or “IRA” to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The IRA attained infamy prior to the 2016 election after it was profiled in depth by the brand-new York Times in 2015. (That piece is still well worth a read.)
Considering the victory the shadowy faction managed to earn in infiltrating U.S. political discourse — and the degree to which those efforts have reshaped how we talk about the world’s biggest tech platforms — the events that led us here are worth revisiting.
IRA activity begins in 2014
In Spring of 2014, the unique advice reports that the IRA started to “consolidate U.S. operations within a solo general department” with the internal nickname the “translator.” The report indicates that this is the moment the faction began to “ramp up” its operations in the U.S. with its sights on the 2016 presidential election.
At this moment, the IRA was already running operations across various social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Later it would diversify its operations to Instagram and Tumblr as well.
Stated anti-Clinton agenda
As the report details, in the early steps of its U.S.-focused political operations, the IRA mostly impersonated U.S. citizens but into 2015 it shifted its strategy to create larger pages and groups that pretended to represent U.S.-based interests and causes, including “anti-immigration groups, Tea Party activists, Black Lives Matter [activists]” among others.
The IRA offered internal advice to its specialists to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary [Clinton] and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we help them” in early 2016.
While much of the IRA activity that we’ve reported on directly sowed political discord on divisive domestic issues, the faction also had a clearly stated agenda to assist the Trump crusade. When the escapade strayed, one IRA operative was criticized for a “lower number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton” and named
the goal of intensify criticism of Clinton “imperative.”
That message continued to ramp up on Facebook into late 2016, even as the faction also continued its efforts in issued-based activist groups that, as we’ve learned, sometimes inspired or intersected with real life events. The IRA bought a total of 3,500 ads on Facebook for $100,000 — a small less than $30 per ad. Some of the most successful IRA groups had hundreds of thousands of followers. As we know, Facebook shut down many of these operations in August 2017.
IRA operations on Twitter
The IRA used Twitter as well, though its strategy there produced some notably disparate results. The faction’s biggest wins came when it managed to successfully interact with many members of the Trump crusade, as was the case with @TEN_GOP which posed as the “Unofficial Twitter of Tennessee Republicans.” That account earned mentions from a number of people linked to the Trump crusade, including Donald Trump Jr., Brad Parscale and Kellyanne Conway.
As the report describes, and has been previously reported, that account managed to get the attention of Trump himself:
“On September 19, 2017, President Trump’s personal account @realDonaldTrump responded to a tweet from the IRA-controlled account @ l0_gop (the backup account of @TEN_ GOP, which had already been deactivated by Twitter). The tweet read: “We love you, Mr. President!”
The unique advice also notes that “Separately, the IRA operated a network of automated Twitter accounts (commonly referred to as a bot network) that enabled the IRA to amplify existing content on Twitter.”
Real life events
The IRA leveraged both Twitter and Facebook to organize real life events, including three events in brand-new York in 2016 and a successions of pro-Trump rallies across both Florida and Pennsylvania in the months leading up the election. The IRA activity includes one event in Miami that the then-candidate Trump’s crusade promoted on his Facebook page.
While we’ve been following revelations around the IRA’s activity for years now, Mueller’s report offers a helpful birds-eye overview of how the faction’s operations wrought harm on social networks, achieving mass influence at very small cost. The entire operation exemplified the greatest weaknesses of our social networks — weaknesses that up until companies like Facebook and Twitter began to reckon with their role in facilitating Russian election interference, were widely regarded as their greatest strengths.