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Russian troll farm targeted black US voters

December 18, 2018

Russia's Internet Research Agency employed fake accounts to turn African-American voters against Hillary Clinton and depress their turnout, a study has found. The NAACP has called for a week-long boycott of Facebook.

Russian troll posts on Social Media (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Elswick)
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

A comprehensive new report for the United States Senate revealed on Monday that Russian troll farms, active in the 2016 US presidential election, also targeted African-Americans. The report was submitted to the Senate by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University and social media specialists Graphika.

Saint Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) worked actively to deepen divisions in US society and dampen voter enthusiasm among Democrat-leaning Latinos, youths and the LGBTQ community, the report said.

Read more: Who are the Russian trolls indicted by the US?

World Stories - Whistleblower reveals troll factory

But the IRA placed special emphasis on provoking anger amongst African-Americans through social media posts between 2015 and 2017, with the goal of depressing their election-day turnout.

Anti-Clinton messaging

Several fake social media accounts tied Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to contentious issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Examples of the content include one IRA-created account called "Blacktivist," which sent out messages that read: "No lives matter to Hillary Clinton. Only votes matter to Hillary Clinton."

Another account called "Black Matters" posted a message on Facebook that read: "Cops kill black kids. Are you sure that your son won't be the next?"

"These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African-American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead," the report said.

Read more: How to influence voters and tamper with the German election

Conversely, the IRA sought to increase turnout amongst right-leaning voters and white Americans. During the week of the presidential election, posts directed to right-leaning users aimed to generate anger and suspicion and hinted at voter fraud, but posts targeted at African-Americans largely ignored mentions of the election until the very last minute.

The NAACP, the leading advocacy group for African-Americans, reacted to the revelations with a call to protest Facebook and Instagram on Tuesday.

"NAACP has returned a donation it recently received from Facebook and will lead a #LogOut of Facebook and Instagram for one week, starting on Tuesday, December 18, 2018," the organization said in a statement.

Troll efforts still ongoing

Two years after the election of US President Donald Trump, troll farms are still working to stoke racial and political passions in the US, a separate report by cybersecurity firm New Knowledge said.

The report stated the existence of live accounts tied to IRA, some of which have moved their online presence to smaller platforms, as the big social media companies have cracked down on Russian trolling activity.

"With at least some of the Russian government's goals achieved in the face of little diplomatic or other pushback, it appears likely that the United States will continue to face Russian interference for the foreseeable future," the researchers wrote.

Read more: EU counter-disinformation efforts in disarray

New Knowledge also noted that all social media companies failed to turn over complete data sets to the US Congress and that some of them "may have misrepresented or evaded" in their testimony about Russian interference, by either intentionally or unintentionally downplaying the magnitude of the problem.

According to the Pew Research Center, white voter turnout surged in 2016 while black turnout dipped by five percentage points, to 59.6 percent, from four years earlier.

IRA was established by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Studies show the IRA US campaign began in 2015, with the goal of mobilizing conservative voters, but with no specific backing for Trump. But the IRA posts turned in his favor once he gained traction in the nomination process.

jcg/rt (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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