Sep 28, 2017

How Russians use social media to divide Americans

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Congressional investigations and media reports are shedding light on ways Russians use social media to cause division and chaos in the U.S.

Why it matters: The revelation that Russian actors meddled in the 2016 election through Facebook ads have led to intense scrutiny into how social media was leveraged to sow chaos and create divisions among Americans. As congressional investigations ramp up and details leak out, a clearer picture is emerging of the tactics used to interfere with American democracy.

  • Impersonating identities: The Daily Beast reports that Kremlin trolls stole the identity of United Muslims of America (a real organization), and then used that alias Facebook page to buy ads aimed at a Muslim audience in order to promote political rallies and spread misinformation.
  • Amplifying division with bots: Senate intelligence committee member James Lankford said during a hearing that Russian internet trolls were using social media to divide U.S. citizens over the controversy surrounding players kneeling in protest during NFL games.

Tactics:

  • Use false identities, accounts or user names that closely mimic or copy real personas. Daily Beast reported that Russians used fake accounts to set up political events. Russian actors have also used real identities of scholars to spread misinformation through fake think tanks and fake research.
  • Use advertising to build audiences on Facebook pages or groups that can further spread misinformation or cause division.
  • Create fake news articles and publish them organically on social media, like Facebook and Twitter.
  • Use bots to amplify divisive speech and to sow confusion.
  • Capitalize on existing political divisions: The Washington Post reported earlier this week that Russian Facebook ads touched on Black Lives Matter and religion-related rifts. Politico also reported this week that Russian-funded Facebook ads supported Jill Stein, Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Trump during the election.

Pressure is mounting in Washington for tech companies to provide more information regarding potential malicious use of their platforms by foreign actors. Twitter will brief Senate Intelligence Committee staff on Capitol Hill Thursday. Facebook said it would hand over to Congress the ads Russians purchased during the election.

Senate committee members have requested that Alphabet, Facebook and Twitter appear before Congress on November 1, and House committee members have requested their presence the following month, per Bloomberg.

The ripple effect: The heightened awareness around Russia-linked efforts has led to calls for investigations into unrelated potential misinformation campaigns. House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith sent letters to the CEOs of Facebook, Alphabet and Twitter asking for information on Russian entities buying anti-fracking ads. Smith argued there's evidence of Russia trying to protect its oil-and-gas sector by spreading sentiment against fracking — the energy extraction technique that has enabled the U.S. oil and natural gas surge.

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