The then and now of the Russian Internet Research Agency

7:15-min read

Hello from 20 Minutes into the Future. In this edition we’re looking at the US propaganda campaigns of the Russian Internet Research Agency. They’ve been at this a lot longer than many realise and are still going strong. It’s going to be important for all of us to get savvy to their new tactics. And fast.

The IRA and Political Polarization in the United States is a brilliant analysis of Internet Research Agency (IRA) campaigns published by Oxford University. It is authored by members of the Oxford Internet Institute and Graphika. The work is a part of the Computational Propaganda Project.

Computational propaganda is defined as “the use of automation, algorithms, and big-data analytics to manipulate public life.” It’s a toxic stew that takes into account fake news, bots, astro-turfing, weaponised algorithms and micro-targeting, and more. The IRA leveraged all of those techniques in their interference campaigns.

From the research summary:

Between 2013 and 2018, the IRA’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter campaigns reached tens of millions of users in the United States.

  • Over 30 million users, between 2015 and 2017, shared the IRA’s Facebook and Instagram posts with their friends and family, liking, reacting to, and commenting on them along the way.

  • Peaks in advertising and organic activity often correspond to important dates in the US political calendar, crises, and international events.

  • IRA activities focused on the US began on Twitter in 2013 but quickly evolved into a multi-platform strategy involving Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube amongst other platforms.

  • The most far reaching IRA activity is in organic posting, not advertisements.

Russia's IRA activities were designed to polarize the US public and interfere in elections by:

  • campaigning for African American voters to boycott elections or follow the wrong voting procedures in 2016, and more recently for Mexican American and Hispanic voters to distrust US institutions;

  • encouraging extreme right-wing voters to be more confrontational; and

  • spreading sensationalist, conspiratorial, and other forms of junk political news and misinformation to voters across the political spectrum.

Surprisingly, these campaigns did not stop once Russia's IRA was caught interfering in the 2016 election. Engagement rates increased and covered a widening range of public policy issues, national security issues, and issues pertinent to younger voters.

  • The highest peak of IRA ad volume on Facebook is in April 2017—the month of the Syrian missile strike, the use of the Mother of All Bombs on ISIS tunnels in eastern Afghanistan, and the release of the tax reform plan.

  • IRA posts on Instagram and Facebook increased substantially after the election, with Instagram seeing the greatest increase in IRA activity.

  • The IRA accounts actively engaged with disinformation and practices common to Russian “trolling”. Some posts referred to Russian troll factories that flooded online conversations with posts, others denied being Russian trolls, and some even complained about the platforms’ alleged political biases when they faced account suspension.

The best propaganda always has a kernel of truth to it. As we’ve discussed previously much of the work was about weaponising dissent and exacerbating racial tensions:

The Russian effort targeted many kinds of communities within the US, but particularly the most extreme conservatives and those with particular sensitivities to race and immigration. The IRA used a variety of fake accounts to infiltrate political discussion in liberal and conservative communities, including black activist communities, in order to exacerbate social divisions and influence the agenda. Accounts posing as liberal and as conservative US users were frequently created and operated from the same computers.

You can rest assured that same strategy is still being pursued in light of the current protests against police brutality. Which, of course, does nothing to invalidate the importance of supporting the movement and its message. It just means we have to make sure we’re boosting voices we can trust that are doing the work.

The IRA is also leaning into pandemic propaganda as you’d expect. According to an EU report one prominent narrative put forward by the IRA was that the coronavirus was a US biological weapon. In March, disinformation conveying these and other IRA messages were amongst the top 12 coronavirus-related stories circulating on social media.

The IRA’s tactics are changing shape.

THEN: IRA posts frequently had spelling or grammar errors. Russian doesn’t use indefinite articles so awkward uses or omissions of “a” and “the” become a common tell.
NOW: The IRA is copying & pasting content from Wikipedia, The Atlantic, and more.

THEN: IRA posts slammed you with a wall of text and were littered with hashtags.
NOW: IRA posts tend to travel by screenshot or use much less text and significantly fewer hashtags

THEN: The IRA built fake accounts with massive followings. In 2017 the IRA account, Blacktivist had more followers than BLM.
NOW: They’re generating more accounts with smaller followings. These accounts are even used in “burner” like fashion. Quick done-in-one posts and then they’re abandoned.

THEN: to further legitimise their accounts they’d add logos and watermarks with the group name on memes and images.
NOW: since those accounts have largely been identified they are blurring or removing the stamps and essentially reposting the same content.

Most alarmingly…

THEN: The IRA directly created these accounts on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
NOW: They’ve franchised! They’re paying locals to open these accounts in the markets they want the messaging to run in. This acts as camouflage that makes it much harder for the big platforms to take down and identify networks.

In summation: they’re getting stealthier.

Our attention is obviously strained even more so in 2020 than in 2018 or 2016. The world is on the brink is so many ways. That means it’s even more vital we stay vigilant. Stop and take a few breath before you hit share or retweet. Your outrage—and the chaos that follows—is what Putin wants.

Dig deeper

You can read more about social media’s role in modern propaganda with these stories from the 20 Minutes into the Future archive:


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10 stories this week

  1. If you need a tldr version then here it is: “The boogaloo boys are terrorists.” https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2020/07/american-boogaloo-meme-or-terrorist-movement/613843/

  2. Why do people keep saying gamergate is a thing of the past when shit like this still happens? https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-53308838

  3. Shocking no one, fake news outlets like The Washington Examiner & Newsmax have been useful idiots for a state-sponsored propaganda campaign from the Middle East. https://www.thedailybeast.com/right-wing-media-outlets-duped-by-a-middle-east-propaganda-campaign

  4. #StopHateForProfit didn’t hear anything today to convince us that Zuckerberg and his colleagues are taking action.” https://www.inputmag.com/culture/facebook-met-the-stop-hate-for-profit-campaign-nothing-came-of-it

  5. There’s another wrinkle here not covered in this fascinating piece: the ad not only doesn’t attribute the source but makes it look like it could be from a local paper. https://themarkup.org/2020/07/07/anatomy-of-a-fake-news-headline

  6. Experimenting with business models is critical to pivot away from hate and outrage. https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/8/21317266/twitter-subscription-platform-codename-gryphon-job-listing

  7. Can a Police Drone Recognize Your Face? https://slate.com/technology/2020/07/police-drone-facial-recognition.html

  8. @_reallifemag is consistently the best read on tech. “Silicon Valley has never shied away from calling its products magical, and in a sense, they are. They can make an entire army of workers disappear behind the smoke and mirrors of the user interface.” https://reallifemag.com/automatic-for-the-bosses/

  9. Sure. But it would require they stop lying, develop humility, and learn how to actually run a community. None of that is likely to happen. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/09/technology/facebook-crisis.html

  10. Facebook’s proposed emoji illustrates yet another glaring blindspot on race. https://www.fastcompany.com/90526252/facebooks-proposed-emoji-illustrates-yet-another-glaring-blindspot-on-race


Sick and tired of big tech behaving badly? 20 Minutes into the Future is about holding the bastards to account. One way we can do that is by spreading the word of their misdeeds.

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Bastard watch

Yevengy Prigozhin is the oligarch bankrolling the IRA. He was one of 13 Russian nationals indicted by Robert Mueller during his investigation that eventually led to the Donald Trump being impeached. Prigozhin has tried and failed to deindex new stories linking him to the IRA. He’s also been linked to Wagner, a Russian mercenary group running ops in Syria, Libya, and sub-saharan Africa. He’s basically Russia’s answer to Erik Prince.

Kindred spirits

Ben Nimmo is one of the pioneers of modern disinformation investigation. He is currently Head of Investigations at Graphika. Nimmo was one of the first outside researchers Facebook brought in to identify the propaganda networks they’ve eventually shutdown. His work makes him a target. In 2017 a Russian bot network on Twitter broadcast fake news of his own death.

We need more Bens and less Yevengys working in tech today if we want a better tomorrow.

A personal note

If you’re a long-time reader then there’s a good chance you’re here because of Warren Ellis. The first three editions of 20 Minutes into the Future were cross-posted to his newsletter, Orbital Operations. If you’re a fan of his writing then you’ve very likely read the many stories about how he’s used his fame and influence to prey upon dozens of women and non-binary individuals over decades.

If you haven’t already then please take the time to read the many testimonials from his targets in their own words. And if you’re able then consider supporting the many organisations that do the hard work to help people recover from this sort of trauma.


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Good night and good future,
Daniel


20 Minutes into the Future is a critical look at how technology is shaping our lives today. And what actions we can take for a better tomorrow. If you're not already a subscriber and found this newsletter worth your while then please sign up.


My name is Daniel Harvey and I write 20 Minutes into the Future. I’m a product designer and have written for Fast Company, Huffington Post, The Drum, & more. If you're pissed about the current state of tech and want to see us do better then you’ve found a kindred spirit.

You can email me at daniel.harvey@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter @dancharvey.