Thursday 19 September 2019

Suppression of black voters 'key to Russian meddling in US election'

Helped: Russian meddling online ‘clearly sought to benefit Donald Trump’, said analysts. Photo: REUTERS
Helped: Russian meddling online ‘clearly sought to benefit Donald Trump’, said analysts. Photo: REUTERS

Nick Allen in Washington

Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election involved every major social media platform and was particularly aimed at suppressing black voters, two new reports have found.

The reports for the US Senate Intelligence Committee analysed data from major technology companies and confirmed that the Kremlin operation was even wider than previously thought.

They found that Russia also stepped up its campaign during 2017, seeking to bolster support for President Donald Trump, and unleashed a torrent of propaganda on Instagram which may have been even more extensive than its use of Facebook.

The reports give the clearest picture yet of the massive disinformation operation run by Russia's Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg.

One report was produced by the University of Oxford's Computational Propaganda Project and the social media analysis firm Graphika, the other by US cybersecurity company New Knowledge and Columbia University.

They studied millions of social media posts, concluding Russian efforts remain "active and ongoing" and would be for the "foreseeable future".

While Russia sought to demoralise Hispanic, millennial, and LGBTQ voters, there was a special focus on discouraging black Americans from going to the polls.

The Oxford study said black voters were encouraged to "boycott" the election as the Russians "spread cynicism and preyed on anger with structural inequalities including police violence, poverty, and disproportionate levels of incarceration".

Among the narratives shared with black audiences was a meme: "I won't vote, will you?"

Another said: "Everybody sucks. We're screwed 2016."

Others urged votes for Jill Stein, the Green candidate.

A host of sites was set up, including blackvswhite.info, blacktivist.info, and blackmattersusa.com, while "extreme right-wing voters were encouraged to be more confrontational".

"Differential messaging to each of these 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 Oxford report said.

The New Knowledge report pointed out that social media companies should have picked up Russian operations earlier because many of the early advertisements they bought were paid for in roubles, and had Russian telephone numbers associated with them.

Researchers also concluded that Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, was the subject of favourable Russian posts shortly before his website released hacked emails embarrassing to the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.

The reports found the operation to influence US voters stretched back to 2013, long before it was seeking to promote Mr Trump. It revealed a "nuanced and deep knowledge of American culture, media, and influencers in each community targeted".

Support for Mr Trump started in the early primaries, and posts attacked other candidates as establishment Republicans. One meme asked whether Florida's Marco Rubio was "a traitor". Another painted Ted Cruz of Texas as "The Trojan Cruz".

Russia has denied it meddled in the US election, contrary to the conclusion of US intelligence agencies.

The findings criticised social media companies for publicly minimising the use of their platforms - and for not sharing key data, such as the many comments generated, as well as the posts' metadata, so they could better judge the impact.

"It appears that the platforms may have misrepresented or evaded in some of their statements to Congress," researchers from New Knowledge wrote. "It is unclear whether these answers were the result of faulty or lacking analysis, or a more deliberate evasion."

Researchers analysed more than 10 million Twitter posts from thousands of Russian fake accounts, more than 116,000 Instagram posts and 61,000 on Facebook, and more than 1,000 YouTube videos. (© Daily Telegraph London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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