An analysis prepared for the Senate highlights the scale of Russia's disinformation campaign during the 2016 US election and its efforts to secure a win for President Donald Trump, The Washington Post reported Sunday.
The report found that the operation used every major social media platform, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to try to sow the seeds of political discord among Americans in the months leading up to the election, the Post said. The report, prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee, is expected to be released this week, the newspaper said.
Disinformation has long been a part of Russia's foreign policy strategy, and social media has allowed the trolling effort to expand on a viral scale. US intelligence agencies have warned Congress that these campaigns will continue in future elections. Although there was great concern of continued interference efforts during the November midterms, that election wasn't included in the report, the newspaper said.
The report found that the Russian campaign divided Americans into key interest groups for targeted messaging, shifting efforts over time based on political moments such as presidential debates or party conventions, the newspaper reported. It also provided the latest evidence that Russian agents sought to sway the election for Trump.
"What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump," the report says, according to the Post. "Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting."
The report is based on the analysis of millions of posts provided by the social media companies, but its authors criticized the companies' "belated and uncoordinated response" to the disinformation campaign, the Post said. The report's authors also urged companies in the future to provide data in more "meaningful and constructive" ways.
Instagram proved increasingly popular as the campaign progressed, according to the report. Russian agents operated 133 on Instagram, Facebook's photo-sharing platform, focusing mainly on race, ethnicity or other forms of personal identity, the Post said.
The campaign's Instagram activity went from about 2,600 posts a month in 2016 to nearly 6,000 in 2017, the newspaper reported. In the three years the report focused on, Russian Instagram posts garnered 185 million likes and 4 million user comments.
Facebook, Twitter and Google have been scrutinized for more than a year by Congress after US intelligence agencies determined that the Russian government had used these platforms to disseminate false news and advertisements in an attempt to influence US elections in 2016. Earlier this year, representatives of Google, Facebook and Twitter told Congress the companies had learned important lessons during the presidential election and pledged more transparency going forward.
Russians used stolen identities to pose as Americans on Facebook and Instagram, creating Facebook groups, buying divisive ads and posting inflammatory images, according to an indictment unsealed in February that charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian groups with interfering with the 2016 presidential election.
Twitter said in a statement Sunday it's worked hard to battle manipulation on its platform.
"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," Twitter said in a statement. "We've made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service, which includes our release of additional data in October related to previously disclosed activities to enable further independent academic research and investigation."
Facebook declined to comment on the report.
Google and the White House didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
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