Russian Trolls Used ‘Digital Marketing Best Practices’ to Sow Discord, Senate Reports Find

Researchers found Instagram was 'most effective' at spreading disinformation

Instagram was "perhaps the most effective platform for the Internet Research Agency," researchers found.

The Russian troll farm responsible for running disinformation campaigns intended to influence the 2016 presidential election reached more people on Instagram than on Facebook, and Russian-government-linked accounts are still spreading disinformation on both of the platforms at even higher rates than before the 2016 presidential election, two reports released Monday found.

The reports showed that the Russian-owned Internet Research Agency has increased its presence on Instagram and Facebook following the 2016 presidential election, during which it conducted sophisticated and expansive disinformation campaigns across social media to spread divisive political messages.

Both reports, which were commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee, show that Russian disinformation efforts were more widespread than previously acknowledged by tech leaders and that the agency’s efforts to influence U.S. politics are ongoing and remain comprehensive.

The reports found that the IRA used “digital marketing best practices” like updating their “visual brand identities,” rebranding pages and renaming itself to find traction.

“The Internet Research Agency operated like a digital marketing agency: develop a brand (both visual and voice), build presences on all channels across the entire social ecosystem, and grow an audience with paid ads as well as partnerships, influencers, and link-sharing,” one report, from the online disinformation research center New Knowledge, concluded. The other report, which was co-conducted by researchers from Oxford University and the social network analysis firm Graphika, found that the IRA “adapted” digital advertising techniques in order to spread disinformation and propaganda.

“This strategy is not an invention for politics and foreign intrigue,” the report read. “It is consistent with techniques used in digital marketing.”

The reports analyzed millions of social media posts from the IRA on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, many of which have not previously been made public. Along with IRA-linked social media accounts, the troll farm had a presence on various digital platforms, from the blogging site LiveJournal to the mobile game Pokémon Go, and IRA accounts cross-promoted other IRA-owned pages. Many of the disinformation campaigns, including on YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, targeted black Americans, the reports found, and focused on undermining trust in mainstream media outlets, borrowing messages from social justice causes and spreading false voting information. On Facebook, the most engaging posts focused on divisive political issues on both the left and the right, including police brutality, gun rights and anti-immigrant sentiment.

The disinformation campaigns included the creation of long-form content on more than a dozen web domains, the creation of more than 1,100 YouTube videos across 16 channels, and the creation and use of 81 Facebook pages, posts from which attracted 76.5 million engagements and 3.3 million Page followers. Those pages shared and repackaged memes and messages across sites, cross-promoted each other, rebranded themselves regularly and often pretended to be local journalism outlets. The sites also used a combination of organic and paid content to reach broader audiences, the reports found.

Instagram was the most significant platform used by the Internet Research Agency, the reports concluded. The IRA created more content on Instagram and got more engagement on those posts than on Facebook, generating nearly 185 million Instagram “likes” across IRA poss. The report authored by New Knowledge concluded that Instagram was “perhaps the most effective platform for the Internet Research Agency,” with 40 percent of its Instagram accounts hitting more than 10,000 followers each, the level of a so-called “micro-influencer,” and 12 surpassing 100,000 followers each. IRA accounts on Instagram focused on promoting merchandise and products, some of which featured political messaging, which the report authors concluded was an opportunity for the IRA to collect additional personal information from buyers.

The reports slammed tech leaders for not sharing more information sooner about the extent of the disinformation campaigns being run on the platforms, and noted that some tech companies did not provide full data sets that would have better allowed researchers to reach conclusions about the ongoing disinformation campaigns. (“Google chose not to disclose any account data on ads, YouTube, or Google+,” the report conducted by Oxford researchers noted.)

“Regrettably, it appears that the platforms may have misrepresented or evaded in some of their statements to Congress,” read one report, conducted by the research group New Knowledge, which tracks online disinformation. “… It is unclear whether these answers were the result of faulty or lacking analysis, or a more deliberate evasion.”

The report lands as tech companies have come under increased scrutiny for their business practices, their treatment of user data and their role in the dissemination of online disinformation, particularly as it’s related to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The ongoing investigations into election interference have brought national attention and scrutiny to the business models of major tech platforms, which give paying customers — usually marketers — access to granular groups of people who give up personal information in exchange for the ability to use their platforms.

In statements, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Committee, said that the reports indicated the need for tech companies to share more information about their platforms to researchers and third-parties who can identify, monitor and study disinformation campaigns.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the committee’s vice chair, called for legislative action.

“That is going to require some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media,” Warner said in a statement Monday. “I hope these reports will spur legislative action in the Congress and provide additional clarity to the American public about Russia’s assault on our democracy.”

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.