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A series of developments Wednesday shed new light on the lengths Russia went to exploit social media, and Facebook in particular, to spread disinformation and generate political division among the American public before last year’s US election.
It emerged earlier this month that fake accounts linked to Russian entities used Facebook to spread misinformation and bought $100,000 worth of inflammatory ads leading up to the election.
The company still does not know the extent of Russia’s purchases or whether the unidentified ad buys remain on the site. Facebook has since said Russia-linked groups did more than buy ads and post memes – they tried to organize anti-immigrant, anti-Hillary Clinton rallies in Texas and Idaho.
Wednesday’s developments indicate that Kremlin-backed entities went even further than what was previously reported.
‘Russia knows no ends and no limits’
In one instance, The Daily Beast learned, operatives supported by the Russian government created a Facebook group impersonating a California-based Muslim organization, called United Muslims of America, to sow anti-US sentiment among American Muslims by targeting politicians across the spectrum.
The report said pro-Kremlin trolls used the group to push fabricated stories, like one claiming Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, admitted that the US “created, funded, and armed” Al Qaeda and ISIS and another saying Sen. John McCain of Arizona was the true founder of ISIS, the terrorist group also known as the Islamic State. Both Clinton and McCain are frequent and vocal critics of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
In addition to spreading disinformation about Democratic and Republican politicians, the group’s creators also reportedly used Twitter and Instagram to spread divisive memes and messages.
“Russia knows no ends and no limits to which groups they would masquerade as to carry out their objectives,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast.
Those objectives at times seemed to go beyond bolstering Trump’s candidacy – a main goal identified by US intelligence agencies. The impostor Facebook group’s biggest swell in activity, according to the report, came after Trump as president ordered a missile strike on a Syrian military airfield in April. Trump made the decision after a deadly chemical attack blamed on Syrian President Bashar Assad killed scores of civilians in a northwest province of the country.
Russia is a staunch ally of Assad and repeatedly warned the US against taking aggressive action following the chemical attack. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the US missile strike constituted “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.”
On April 9, three days after the strike, the fake UMA Facebook account posted a meme signaling its opposition to the move, according to The Daily Beast. The $93 million that the strike cost, the social-media posting said, “could have founded Meals on Wheels until 2029” (the group presumably meant “funded”). The group posted more than a dozen memes afterward – both on Facebook and on Instagram – opposing US intervention in Syria.
Of the real United Muslims of America organization, Swalwell told The Daily Beast “they seek harmony between the US and the Muslim world.”
“Many of these individuals I have heard first-hand denounce terrorist attacks across the world, including those carried out by Muslims,” Swalwell said. “To see their name hijacked by the Russians, if true, and carrying out Russian goals of undermining the US is disturbing and not who they are.”
The fake UMA group reportedly organized several real-life events, though it’s unclear whether it successfully drew an audience. Fifty-nine people were marked as having attended one event in September 2016, while 20 were marked as having attended another in June this year, though The Daily Beast said there’s no evidence that anyone showed up.
Consistent with the overall goal of creating discord
On Wednesday evening, CNN followed up with a separate report with details about a Facebook ad bought by Russians during last year’s election that was centered on the Black Lives Matter movement and targeted specifically the cities of Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
The ad was bought by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll factory based in St. Petersburg.
Ferguson and Baltimore in 2014 and 2015 were the sites of killings by the police of young, unarmed black men that sparked nationwide protests against the police and elevated the Black Lives Matter movement’s profile.
The Russian-backed Facebook ad appeared in late 2015 or early 2016, sources told CNN, and though it was meant to appear supportive of Black Lives Matter, it may also have conveyed the group as threatening to some residents of those cities.
“This is consistent with the overall goal of creating discord inside the body politic here in the United States, and really across the West,” former CIA officer Steve Hall told CNN. “It shows the level of sophistication of their targeting. They are able to sow discord in a very granular nature, target certain communities and link them up with certain issues.”
Cyberwarfare as a way to support informational goals
The Internet Research Agency, the Russian company that bought the ad, is known for its activities in the informational space.
From his research on the company last year, the journalist Adrian Chen discovered that Russian internet trolls – paid by the Kremlin to spread false information on the internet – were behind numerous “highly coordinated campaigns” to deceive the American public.
- David McNew/Getty Images
It’s a brand of information warfare, known as “dezinformatsiya,” that has been used by Russia since at least the Cold War. The disinformation campaigns, as described by Michael Weiss, a senior editor at The Daily Beast who also edits the Russia-focused journal The Interpreter, are only one “active measure” tool used by Russian intelligence to “sow discord among,” and within, allies perceived hostile to Russia.
From interviews with former trolls employed by Russia, Chen gathered that the point of their jobs “was to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person.”
Indeed, “the Russians generally look at cyberwarfare as a way to support informational goals, like shaping an election,” Paulo Shakarian, the CEO of Cyr3con, a cybersecurity threat-intelligence firm, told Business Insider in July. The belief is rooted primarily in Putin’s long-held view that cyberwar is a way to influence the informational battlefield.
Russia’s efforts were also most likely bolstered – intentionally or not – by Trump himself.
“Part of the reasons active measures have worked in the US election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents,” a former FBI special agent named Clint Watts told the Senate Intelligence Committee in May, pointing to Trump’s citations of fake-news stories pushed out by Russian-linked entities last year.
Trump “denies the intel from the United States about Russia, and he claimed the election could be rigged – that was the number one claim pushed by RT, Sputnik News, all the way up until the election,” Watts said. “Part of the reasons Russian active measures work is because they parrot the same lines.”
Facebook, for its part, appears to have been slow to act in the wake of Russia’s actions.
President Barack Obama tried to warn the platform’s CEO and cofounder, Mark Zuckerberg, about the threat of fake news and its possible effect on the 2016 election less than two weeks after Trump won the presidency, The Washington Post reported on Sunday.
Nine days before he reportedly spoke with Obama, Zuckerberg struck down the notion that Facebook could sway public opinion as a “crazy idea” that “surely had no impact” on the end result.
Following the president’s warning, Zuckerberg acknowledged the problem but said fake news wasn’t widespread on Facebook, according to The Post. He added at the time that there was no easy solution to the issue, The Post said, citing people familiar with the matter.