This week began with more news about Russia’s manipulation of social media to mislead the American public, but the latest reports claim that those efforts continued even after the election of President Trump.
Trump’s failure to address — or even comment — on the latest findings is a reminder to Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike of his lack of will to take a strong stance against the country that is considered one of the nation’s greatest security threats.
The Washington Post reported this week how Russia’s disinformation teams targeted special counsel Robert S. Mueller III after Trump was elected. As news about Mueller’s efforts — and successes — in discovering the depths that Russia went to interfere in the 2016 election, Russian disinformation teams attempted to attack his credibility.
The first report — by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, a network analysis firm — provided new information about how Russians worked at the Internet Research Agency, which has been charged with criminal offenses by U.S. officials for interfering in the 2016 campaign, to target specific groups.
And the second report — prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee by researchers for New Knowledge, Columbia University and Canfield Research — emphasized more details of the Russian operation, specifically saying, “The IRA created an expansive cross-platform media mirage targeting the Black community, which shared and cross-promoted authentic Black media to create an immersive influence ecosystem.”
The Post said:
“Twitter hit political and journalistic elites. Facebook and its advertising targeting tools divided the electorate into demographic and ideological segments ripe for manipulation, with particular focus on energizing conservatives and suppressing African Americans, who traditionally are more likely to vote for Democrats.”
Suppressing black Americans who are politically engaged was a strategy of the Russians because the influential voting bloc is one of the most critical of the Trump presidency — and foreign powers who support it — given the president’s history of comments and even policy ideas some deem racist. Most black Americans also largely back Democrats, support the Russia investigation and have rallied behind some prominent Democratic Party leaders like Rep. Maxine Waters (D.-Cal.) who have been vocal about their desire to see the president removed from office.
Russia’s disinformation campaign during the 2016 election is believed to have played a role in suppressing turnout among black voters during the 2016 election, and its continued activity sought to do the same thing for the 2018 election, although those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.
But it is not only black Americans who captured the attention of Russia. Young Americans — particularly millennials, who are more likely to vote Democrat and give the Trump presidency low approval ratings — found themselves the target of Russia’s attempts to mislead and deceive, according to the report.
A surprising revelation to come out of the reports is how much Russia sought to influence Americans using Instagram, the social media app that young adults favor more than Facebook and Twitter. In fact, The Post reported that Instagram generated responses on a scale beyond any of the others — more than Twitter and Facebook combined.
“Instagram’s appeal is that’s where the kids are, and that seems to be where the Russians went,” said Philip N. Howard, head of the Oxford research group.
But Trump, who has long downplayed — and sometimes flat out denied, that Russia interfered in the election that helped him secure the presidency, has not yet addressed the past week’s reports. In fact, his most notable related comments about Russia were to take to Twitter, his favorite social media outlet, was to make general claims about his tough stances toward Russia after he was criticized for pulling American troops out of Syria — a decision Russian President Vladimir Putin praised.
The findings of these latest reports are likely part of the reason, most Americans, including groups most likely to lean left, want to see the investigation into Russia’s interference in American politics continue. While it is increasingly clear that Russia targeted some of the American identity groups most likely to criticize its preferred 2016 candidate, there is little confidence that the president will speak out or act harshly against Russian leaders for doing so. And to those Americans, this presents a threat to the integrity of future elections.