Russian disinformation efforts targeting 2020 elections began last year: study

Social media accounts linked to the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) began spreading “brazen” misinformation connected to the 2020 election last year, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice said in a report released Thursday. 

The report was based on “coordinated inauthentic behavior” originating in Russia that was removed by Facebook from its platform and from Instagram in October. The researchers tied that information to the IRA, a St. Petersburg-based state-sponsored group that, according to U.S. intelligence agencies and former special counsel Robert Mueller, was primarily responsible for pushing disinformation to sow division and promote the campaign of now-President Trump during the 2016 elections. 

The data removed by Facebook — which the company at the time noted showed “some links” to the IRA — included around 75,000 posts from one IRA-linked Facebook account and 50 IRA-linked Instagram accounts. 

“Russia’s trolls pretended to be American people, including political groups and candidates,” Brennan Center-affiliated Professor Young Mie Kim wrote of the data removed in 2019. “They tried to sow division by targeting both the left and right with posts to foment outrage, fear, and hostility. Much of their activity seemed designed to discourage certain people from voting. And they focused on swing states.” 

She concluded that, based on the data analyzed, “it is very clear that as of September 2019, the IRA-linked groups already have begun a systematic campaign operation to influence the 2020 elections on Facebook and Instagram.”

Kim in the report also said that the IRA’s approach to election disinformation was “evolving,” pointing to improvements made at impersonating candidates and mimicking campaign logos. 

She warned that the group was still pinpointing divisions in U.S. society through the posts, often targeting both sides of the political spectrum with “wedge issues.” 

The top five of the issues exploited in IRA-linked posts were those related to race, American nationalism or patriotism, immigration, gun control and LGBT rights. Anti-immigration and gun rights posts were also prevalent. 

The accounts reviewed by the researchers were found to have heavily targeted misinformation at Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Florida and Ohio, all of which are seen as swing states in the 2020 presidential election. 

Reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post in February found that U.S. intelligence officials had evidence that Russian agents were interfering in the 2020 elections in favor of both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential primary candidate. 

Kim noted that while her team’s analysis of the Russian misinformation could not provide a “definite answer” as to whether Russian agents were interfering to help either Trump or Sanders, some of the IRA-linked posts were pro-Sanders or pro-Trump.

In order to combat misinformation threats from the IRA and other foreign-affiliated groups, Kim pushed for laws around online election ads to be updated to include digital posts and that tech platforms should prioritize identity verification of those behind these posts. 

“Without safeguards like these, Russia and other foreign governments will continue their efforts to manipulate American elections and undermine our democracy,” Kim wrote. 

Social media platforms have taken some actions to combat misinformation since the 2016 elections. 

Twitter banned all political ads on its platform last year, while Google limited microtargeting options for campaigns. Facebook found itself in hot water in 2019 when the company announced it would not fact-check political ads, even if candidates were found to be posting misinformation.

The Brennan Center report’s findings echo warnings from top federal officials around Russian disinformation in recent months.

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to a House committee in February that officials “were seeing and had never stopped seeing since 2016 efforts to engage in malign foreign influence by the Russians.”

Mueller indicted the IRA and more than a dozen Russian nationals associated with the group in 2018 for their interference in the 2016 presidential election. Facebook estimated that around 146 million Americans may have been exposed to ads or posts from the IRA on Facebook and Instagram in the lead-up to the 2016 elections.

A senior official at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency told reporters on Super Tuesday that there was “constant” and “low-level” foreign disinformation activity directed at elections. The official stressed that this activity did not significantly increase on Super Tuesday, when Americans in 14 states and one territory cast votes in primary elections. 

Tags Bernie Sanders Christopher Wray Donald Trump Robert Mueller
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