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Russian influencers thrived on Instagram after Facebook, Twitter caught on

Senate reports say Russia's disinformation campaign is moving to smaller platforms.

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Alfred Ng/CNET

Once the Internet Research Agency got outed on Facebook and Twitter, Instagram became the new haven for Russia's disinformation campaign.

That's the takeaway from two comprehensive reports Monday on Russia's social media manipulation efforts. One is from researchers at New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm, and the other is from researchers at Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Research Project and Graphika.

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence provided the data for the reports, which it received from companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter. This is the first complete analysis of Russia's disinformation efforts during the 2016 US presidential election from a third party outside of the social networks.

The Russian government has denied any involvement with the US presidential election since 2016. The Russian embassy didn't respond to a request for comment. 

"Our singular focus is to improve the health of the public conversation on our platform, and protecting the integrity of elections is an important aspect of that mission," a Twitter spokesperson said in an email.

Google declined to comment.

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The report highlighted how Russian influencers used social media to suppress voter turnout; to deepen political divisions through controversial topics like race, gun control and immigration; and to target Americans through focused pages like Being Patriotic, Blacktivist and United Muslims of America.

"This newly released data demonstrates how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology, and how the IRA actively worked to erode trust in our democratic institutions," Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina and the committee's chairman, said in a statement. "Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped."

And they're moving deeper into new venues as well. While the majority of the audience (126 million people) was on Facebook, the world's largest social network, Russian influencers' focus has shifted to Instagram, which Facebook owns. in the data that was examined, there were 61,483 Facebook posts, compared with 116,205 Instagram posts.

The shift began in 2017, likely in response to increased scrutiny on Russia's influence campaign on Facebook and Twitter, according to the report.

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A popular IRA account evolved from a Kermit the Frog memes page to a Christianity-focused page in a year.

New Knowledge

"Instagram engagement outperformed Facebook; this may be an indicator of the platform being more ideal for memetic warfare, (it offers features and a culture that are a hybrid of Facebook and Twitter)," the report says.

The posts targeted African-Americans, Christians and feminists in the US. The IRA ran 133 Instagram accounts, which amassed 3,391,116 followers and 183,246,348 likes over two years.

The IRA's Facebook efforts, which received more attention from lawmakers, had 62,000 pages with 3,334,202 followers and 37,627,085 likes.

Facebook did not address the IRA's shift to Instagram, but said it's continuing to cooperate with Congress and researchers in its investigation. 

"We've made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy," a Facebook spokesperson said in an email.

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Many of the posts targeting African-American communities are still circulating on Instagram. 

New Knowledge

The NAACP responded to the report on Monday, writing in a tweet that it has returned a donation it recently received from Facebook.

"We are calling on supporters to log out of Facebook and Instagram on Tuesday, December 18," the organization said.

Out of the top 20 Instagram posts from the IRA, 18 of them were from 2017, months after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it was "a pretty crazy idea" that disinformation influenced the US election.

Russian influencers used Zuckerberg's comments in their propaganda, according to the report.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California and a ranking member on the House select committee on intelligence, said that social media companies were reluctant to work with third-party researchers, making the process "more difficult than it should have been."

"For many months we urged the social media companies to undertake such a cross-cutting analysis without success, even as we made as much of their data public as possible," Schiff said in a statement.

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This was the most-liked image before the election in 2016.

New Knowledge

The majority of the posts on Instagram were memes, which were often recycled and posted across multiple accounts. The top two posts before the US election in 2016 were the exact same images, posted twice, amassing 87,750 likes and then 84,469 likes the second time. 

Because of Instagram's viral nature, many of these Russian-influenced memes are still floating around the social network, as people share the divisive posts without knowing the original source.

"These memes continue to be spread within the communities they were targeting, particularly the content by the lesser-known or quietly-removed pages," the report said.

While Facebook has developed artificial intelligence to seek out disinformation in text-based posts, it's still catching up with propaganda tucked away in memes. In September, the social network said it's using machine learning to help it detect issues in memes.  

Instagram has faced much less scrutiny from lawmakers than its parent company has. The social platform is image-centric, making it harder for researchers to pick up patterns of disinformation from foreign actors. Despite the separation, Erin Egan, Facebook's chief privacy officer, said at its pop-up shop in New York on Thursday that the social network was getting more questions about Instagram. 

"Particularly this year, there's been a lot of questions about how to protect data on Facebook," she said. "But there have been a sprinkling of questions of other services too."

The researchers expect to see Russian efforts continue ahead of the US presidential election in 2020, with a focus on secondary platforms like Instagram, as well as chat services. The shift keeps Russian propaganda more hidden and allows disinformation to spread well after the accounts have been banned.

"This should stand as a wakeup call to us all that none of us are immune from this threat, and it is time to get serious in addressing this challenge," Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia and the committee's vice chairman, said in a statement. "That is going to require some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media."

Originally published at 9:42 a.m. PT.
Updated at 11:02 a.m. PT: To include a response from Facebook.

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