Russian ‘information warfare’ antagonized greens

Source: Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Russian attacks on the 2016 elections exploited energy issues to fire up voters on Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts.

The Russian campaign promoted third-party candidates who ran for office to “save the planet” and blasted out memes that mocked oil companies as part of a misinformation effort to help Donald Trump in the presidential election, according to two reports released yesterday by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract, and ultimately discourage members from voting,” said one report that focused on a Russian troll operation known as the Internet Research Agency. “While the IRA strategy was a long-term one, it is clear that activity between 2015 and 2016 was designed to benefit President Trump’s campaign.”

Russia created an online troll army that reached 126 million users on Facebook alone. It posted anti-immigrant rhetoric, created fear around the Black Lives Matter movement and used Islamophobic screeds in an effort to steer voters to Trump, the reports said.

The troll campaign sought to erode support for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by encouraging Democratic voters to stay home on Election Day or to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein.

And it might continue today.

“Surprisingly, these campaigns did not stop once Russia’s IRA was caught interfering in the 2016 election,” said one report submitted to the Senate panel by the Texas-based cybersecurity firm New Knowledge. “Engagement rates increased and covered a widening range of public policy issues, national security issues, and issues pertinent to younger voters.”

The Russian government’s efforts could be more extensive than realized. The report by New Knowledge indicated that Google, Facebook and Twitter “did the bare minimum possible” to provide information to the Senate committee. The other report by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project also criticized the social media companies for not sharing enough data.

IRA posts were shared by users about 31 million times, were liked almost 39 million times and drew 3.5 million comments, the Oxford report found. IRA posts on Instagram received 185 million likes and 4 million comments.

Much of the public attention has focused on the message to conservatives from the troll accounts, but they also targeted left-leaning voters by emphasizing environmental issues, according to the reports.

“The generic Left-leaning pages have gotten much less attention in the analyses of IRA content, perhaps because less of the content has been made public,” one of the reports said. “Themes included anti-corporatism and suspicion of government.”

The effort to sway potential Democratic voters, in particular African-Americans and supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), highlighted divisions in the party and encouraged them to stay home on Election Day or to vote for a third-party candidate. Clinton needed both of those groups to overcome Trump’s margins in white, rural areas.

“Now is the time to build another party — because we don’t have another planet,” read one meme that included Stein’s photo.

There were a series of memes aimed at liberals concerned about environmental issues. Some portrayed big oil companies as evil overlords. Others described energy companies as the beneficiaries of corporate welfare, at the expense of the average American family.

“The biggest 5 oil companies made 135 billion in profit last year,” read one meme that showed Uncle Sam shooting a needle of oil into his veins. “Why in the world are we giving them at least 10 billion in subsidies while we are closing public schools.”

A different meme, aimed at supporters of the Anonymous computer hacking group, pictured a man in a Guy Fawkes mask.

“The real 3 big branches of government are big oil, big pharma and big banks,” it read.

Another focused on the benefits of organic farming while showing a photo of a farmworker dumping chemicals into equipment used to spray crops.

“Farming like this is legal but this isn’t,” it read.

Some Twitter bots associated with the Russian campaign and identified in the report are still active. One of them, @besttattooing, recently tweeted about the “Green New Deal.” It shared a headline and image from a HuffPost article about progressive Democrats opposing the “Green New Deal,” which seeks to increase renewable energy and decarbonize the economy.

Russian trolls participated in real-time Twitter conversations and routinely used hashtags to increase their visibility, the report found. They also had some “longform blog content,” such as the GIAnalytics page, with nuanced content on a variety of issues, including the environment. The site’s content, which was linked to Russian propaganda efforts, was then repurposed on other web properties, including Russia NewsNow, Russia Insider, The Russophile and Novorossia Today.

“Our purpose and mission are to provide high-quality analysis at a time when we are faced with a multitude of crises, a collapsing global economy, imperialist wars, environmental disasters, corporate greed, terrorism, deceit, GMO food, a migration crisis and a crackdown on small farmers and ranchers,” GIAnalytics said. “We are in a desperate need of truth and of hard-cutting analysis, especially now, when we are being betrayed by our elected representatives and the corporate media.”

The GIAnalytics Twitter feed continued to operate as of yesterday. One tweet mocked the government for proposing to build the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site near spiritually sensitive land for Native Americans in Nevada.

“So sacred in fact, that the #US Government wants to place a #nuclear waste dump smack in the middle of it,” the account tweeted, with a link to a GIAnalytics webpage that is now dead.

The report shows that Russia and other foreign actors will continue to exploit social media to influence U.S. elections.

“Foreign manipulation of American elections on social platforms will continue to be an ongoing, chronic problem,” the New Knowledge report said. “As platforms evolve and make features more impenetrable, the adversaries will adapt and manipulate the ecosystem in new ways. This is information warfare, not an issue of fake narratives or false messaging.”