The nation learned this week the full extent to which Russia used social media to manipulate the 2016 presidential election. And it did so by exploiting our own racial, religious and political divisions. The detailed accounting of Russia’s malign activity — in a pair of reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee — is both astonishing and chilling.
It also is definitive: Russia’s online warfare is real, sophisticated and unrelenting. It mutates as needed and grows ever more effective. And it continues today.
Ignoring or discrediting such reports guarantees the cyber campaign by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin will play an ever-larger role in our electoral process. It also fails to understand that such Russian disruptions continue efforts that began in the 1930s with Soviet Union propaganda campaigns intended to inflame America’s racial divisions. Only the methods have changed.
Political weaponization of Instagram
The 2016 campaign spread misinformation, fake news and conspiracies across social media — including Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr and PayPal. The weaponization of Instagram was particularly extensive. One account, @blackstagram, had more than 300,000 followers. All told, Russian trolls elicited 187 million engagements such as comments and likes on Instagram.
The trolls created Facebook pages like “Blacktivist,” “Army of Jesus” and “Heart of Texas.” They dubbed Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine the “Satan Team”; Donald Trump and Mike Pence were the “Jesus Team.” One fake post claimed Clinton had received $20,000 from the Ku Klux Klan. A Tumblr post urged Pokémon Go players to name their Pokémon after victims of police brutality. Remember: Special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted 25 Russians and three companies on charges related to election interference and hacking.
Possible indicators of the impact
The reports conclude that Russia intended to attack Clinton and elect Trump by suppressing Democratic turnout and pushing right-wing voters toward extremism. There might never be a clear conclusion that the interference got Trump elected. But it’s worth noting that Russia targeted African-Americans more than any group, urged them to boycott the election or vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, and dispensed incorrect information about the voting process. And, for the first time in 20 years, turnout among black voters did decline. Trump’s victory came via narrow wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — where black turnout was lower than expected in Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia. Now Russian trolls target Hispanics with a “Brown Power” campaign that’s using stories about deportations and treatment of migrants to inflame tensions.
More study is needed to learn how to prevent attempts by Russians or any political operatives to influence future elections. So are tough regulations; Google, Facebook and Twitter did not provide all data requested by Senate investigators. Social media users must become savvy about who provides information online, and cross-check stories.
Failing to learn from one’s mistakes means repeating them. In this case, that would be a disaster for our democracy.