Oct 7, 2020 - World

Russia eyes far-right U.S. social media networks

Illustration of a hand in gloves and a winter jacket on a computer mouse

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Russian troll farm central to Moscow's 2016 U.S. election interference campaign appears to be behind a new operation targeting U.S. voters on Gab and Parler, social media platforms favored by the far right.

Why it matters: The shift by Russia's Internet Research Agency to more marginal platforms may signal that the techniques and strategies that paid off for Russia in 2016 are seeing declining returns. If Moscow is trying to influence a broad swath of U.S. voters, being relegated to platforms unknown to 99% of Americans simply won’t get the job done.

Driving the news: The move to Gab and Parler was documented in a report from social media analytics firm Graphika and an accompanying Reuters investigation late last week. This is Russia's first known use of these platforms.

Details: The fake network described by Graphika revolved around an ostensibly Europe-based website called the Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens (NAEBC).

  • NAEBC’s stated purpose was to provide news and commentary about Europe and North America from a conservative perspective, but the vast majority of its content was U.S.-oriented and "focused on racial tensions and violence and always presented minorities and liberals in a negative light," says Graphika.
  • Stymied by more robust enforcement regarding disinformation operations on mainstream platforms, the IRA operators sought to build profiles and followings on alternative platforms favored by the far right, such as Gab and Parler.
  • Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have all taken down NAEBC-linked content on their site, while Gab and Parler have not.

Of note: To create believable identities for the fake editors and writers for the site, the Russian intelligence operatives created LinkedIn and other social media profiles and used AI-generated fake profile photos, employing technology “known as Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN), a technique that has become increasingly popular among information operations since 2019.”

By the numbers: The disinformation operation, which went public in June, failed to take hold in any meaningful way on mainstream platforms. For example, by the time its main account was removed from Twitter in late September, it had fewer than 200 followers.

  • Though still relatively small, its greatest success was on the far-right platforms: By late September, accounts associated with NAEBC had 14,000 followers on Parler and 3,000 on Gab.

The intrigue: Investigators believe that the IRA operation that created NAEBC was also responsible for the fake Peace Data website and organization, which focused on left-wing voters and engaged in anti-Biden messaging.

  • As in 2016, the Russians' 2020 strategy seems to be in increasing societal tensions through targeting “both ends of the political spectrum with divisive and hyper-partisan content,” says Graphika.
  • The Peace Data network involved 13 Facebook accounts and two pages, with 14,000 followers for one of these pages, Facebook disclosed in August. But the English-language page only had roughly 200 followers, and the sites had only invested $480 in advertising. Before it was taken down, Peace Data’s Twitter account had only 3,000 followers.

Between the lines: The alternative, ideologically driven social networks cropping up on the right have no equivalent on the left. Unless active-measures campaigns manage to infiltrate private left-leaning groups on platforms like WhatsApp, Discord or Telegram, inflaming tensions on the left side of U.S. politics via certain techniques may become increasingly hard to pull off as mainstream platforms get wiser to disinformation.

The bottom line: Focusing on niche platforms could help Russia and other hostile powers further radicalize a small sliver of the American electorate. The IRA's activities on Parler and Gab may augur a turn to a less visible, and more targeted, approach to ratcheting up domestic U.S. tensions.

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