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Study clarifies goals of Russia's 2016 social media campaign

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."
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