Two reports commissioned by the US Senate Intelligence Committee have found that Russian efforts to influence voters are ongoing and span social media platforms from Instagram to Youtube, with content being specifically targeted at LGBT, African Americans, white conservatives and religious groups.
In one report compiled by the University of Oxford and social media analysts Graphika researchers found that: “Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) launched an extended attack on the United States by using computational propaganda to misinform and polarize US voters.” Examples included memes, videos and more.
Both reports, the second by cybersecurity enterprise New Knowledge, found that Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) had begun targeting American voters as far back as 2012. The agency used tactics it had become familiar with in previous campaigns against citizens in Eastern Europe.
These attacks involved a cross-platform use of social media accounts to spread propaganda aimed at vulnerable citizens in the run-up to elections with the intent to foster a political and cultural divide.
Oxford researchers found that: “Differential messaging to…[specific] target groups was designed to push and pull them in different ways. What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party—and specifically, Donald Trump.”
“The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract, and ultimately discourage members from voting,” the report found.
Senate Intelligence Committee: Platforms Withheld Data
In order to carry out this researcher both papers sought information from the social media and technology providers in question, mainly Google, Facebook and Twitter.
Facebook provided datasets on advertisements bought by the IRA users on their social media platform, as well as the photo sharing site Instagram.
Twitter provided what researchers referred to as a ‘vast corpus’ of detailed account information on accounts which Twitter has identified as managed by IRA staff.
However, both research institutes found that the technology giants could have done more to engage with the studies
Researchers at New Knowledge commented in their report that: “None of the platforms (Twitter, Facebook, and Alphabet) appears to have turned over complete sets of related data to SSCI. Some of what was turned over was in PDF form; other data sets contained extensive duplicates. Each lacked core components that would have provided a fuller and more actionable picture.”
Yet particular displeasure was reserved for Google as the researchers in both reports believed the company’s data contribution was the ‘most limited’ of the three technology giants.
The team at Oxford state that Google gave them images of 655 AdWord advertisements and 228 YouTube videos. However, Google apparently sent the videos in an mp4 (video) format without metadata.
They state that: “The images were not machine-readable and the data was incomplete and provided without context.”
The investigators were also able to track the counter-disruption efforts undertaken by Facebook and Twitter to stop the spread of propaganda through their platforms.
“As a result of internal investigations and subsequent takedowns, Facebook-related activity stops in abrupt stages, and the activity continues on Twitter before being similarly disrupted over nine months later,” they found.
However, once again the data provided by Google proves inadequate even while attempting to show the company in a positive light in this event. As researchers note: “Google’s disruption efforts are impossible to audit and contrast with Facebook’s and Twitter’s efforts given the sparse data provided.”
A Google spokesperson told Computer Business Review that: “We conducted an in depth investigation across multiple product areas, and provided a detailed and thorough report to investigators.”
“As we said at the time, videos on YouTube are viewable by anyone. Users can create videos intended for certain audiences, but there is no way to target by race on Google or YouTube.”
Twitter and Facebook were also contacted for this story, neither provided a statement or comment.