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Presidents Trump and Putin at the Helsinki summit. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images.

There are two competing ways to look at the Kremlin's social media activities during the 2016 U.S. election campaign: Either the Russian propaganda campaign aimed to elect Donald Trump or it intended to manipulate both left and right into country-crippling division. A new study suggests both views may be right.

Why it matters: Experts tend to believe that Russia's social media propaganda campaign is a year-in, year-out assault to sow division. That's been tough for more casual observers to square with other Russian efforts in 2016, like hacking the Democratic National Campaign or propaganda on its TV station RT.

To be clear, the amount of Russian social media propaganda actually increased after the election.

  • What's new in the study is an explanation for how that meshed with a secondary goal — foiling Hilary Clinton.

The study, now under review for publication, was conducted by Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren of Clemson University, Brandon Boatwright of University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and Will Grant of Australia National University.

Details: Analyzing a random sampling of propaganda tweets, researchers broke the messages into several categories.

  • The majority (52.6%) were "camouflage" tweets that created the appearance of a normal Twitter account.
  • 19% of tweets shilled for a right-wing worldview, 12.8% for the left, 7% attacked public institutions and 2% attacked the media.

But, but, but: The way the Russian trolls approached supporting the left and right were extremely different.

  • Accounts trolling on behalf of the right discussed candidates 78% of the time. Accounts trolling on behalf of the left only discussed candidates 35% of the time — less than half as often.
  • Right-wing accounts were 15 times more likely to praise Trump than criticize him. Left-wing accounts were only 1.3 times more likely to praise Hillary Clinton than criticize her.
  • The researchers categorized left- and right-wing trolls separately from two other types of Russian accounts — newsfeeds, which appeared to be apolitical news sources, and "hashtag gamers," who mostly told jokes.

That could mean that even as the Russian influence campaign tried to divide Americans from one another, it was also showing a political preference.

  • The Russians were anti-Clinton, as suggested by their release of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta. "Clearly, they didn't like Clinton," said Linvill.
  • But it could also mean that attacking Clinton better suited their goal of polarization. "The tweets were designed to tear people away from the center, and Clinton was the centrist candidate," said Warren.

Remember, the hacking campaign appears to have been run by the Russian intelligence agency, the GRU. Social media campaigns are run by a different group, the Internet Research Agency. The two could have had different goals.

  • The campaign, noted Linvill and Warren, didn't just widen political rifts. "They loved to talk to anti-science groups, too, like anti-vaxers," said Warren, "Once you start distrusting science, you'll distrust the media and the government."
  • "A small fraction of people share fake news," added Linvill, "and they tend to believe in conspiracies."

Go deeper

1 hour ago - Technology

Scoop: Facebook exec warns of "more bad headlines"

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In a post to staffers Saturday obtained by Axios, Facebook VP of global affairs Nick Clegg warned the company that worse coverage could be on the way: “We need to steel ourselves for more bad headlines in the coming days, I’m afraid.”

Catch up quick: Roughly two dozen news outlets had agreed to hold stories based on leaked materials from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen for Monday publication — but the embargo fell apart Friday night as participating newsrooms posted a batch of articles ahead of the weekend.

"Atmospheric river" to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood

A map depicting 24-hour preciptation forecast (inches) ending Monday at 5a.m. local time. Photo: NOAA

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are set dump historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest from this weekend, forecasters warn.

Why it matters: A strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is predicted to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood.

Inside Biden's Taiwan flubs

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Twice this year, President Biden has blurted out commitments that the U.S. is prepared to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion — forcing the White House to walk back his statements and leading to confusion over a high-stakes national security policy.

Why it matters: U.S. defense officials have publicly aired their concerns that China will take Taiwan by force in the next four to six years, perhaps sooner. The president's position on this question may soon have real-world, life and death consequences.