It started innocently enough. In 2016, I ran a pro-Hillary Tumblr that became quite popular. I started it after searching for Hillary and Bernie memes on Tumblr and discovering just how little pro-Hillary content existed on the platform. I was also overwhelmed by the volume and tone of the anti-Hillary content there. Tumblr’s demographic skews young, so I wasn’t surprised by how much pro-Bernie content I found on the platform, but the state of Hillary’s presence on Tumblr (outside of her campaign’s own page) really shocked me. I decided to do something about it, and I Like Hillary was born.
I didn’t put a lot of time or energy into the site, maybe 10 to 15 minutes every morning before work. I’d search the internet for new Hillary content and reblog posts from the other pro-Hillary Tumblrs I followed. But the return for my minimal effort was enormous. I’ve created popular Tumblrs before (most notably This Man Legislates), but traffic on this new one was through the roof. At its peak, I Like Hillary posts were averaging more than 200,000 engagements per week, with the top post gathering more than 71,500 notes. Given the effort I put in, that’s the best return on investment I’d ever seen on a digital project I’ve created.
When Trump won the election, I abandoned I Like Hillary, but what I found on the initial search stuck with me. I’ve been doing digital strategy in politics and advocacy for more than 11 years, and what I saw online in 2016 didn’t make sense to me. Spend more than 10 minutes on any online platform and you got the sense that every American voter thought Hillary Clinton was an evil criminal, something the election results (in which Clinton won the popular vote) didn’t bear out. Hillary Clinton might have been an unpopular candidate, but she wasn’t hated by everyone. It didn’t add up.
Of course, now we know why so much of what happened online in 2016 didn’t make sense. Russian propaganda ran rampant on all of our favorite social media sites. The Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency reportedly ran digital influence operations on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and, as it turns out, Tumblr.
Per BuzzFeed, Russian trolls exploited the young audiences of Tumblr in their content strategy:
Russian trolls posed as black activists on Tumblr and generated hundreds of thousands of interactions for content that ranged from calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” to supporting Bernie Sanders and decrying racial injustice and police violence in the US, according to new findings from researcher Jonathan Albright and BuzzFeed News.
While Facebook and Twitter continue to face intense public and congressional pressure over the activity from trolls working for the Russian Internet Research Agency, Tumblr has somehow managed to escape scrutiny. But the blogging platform was in fact home to a powerful, largely unrevealed network of Russian trolls focused on black issues and activism.
“The evidence we've collected shows a highly engaged and far-reaching Tumblr propaganda-op targeting mostly teenage and twenty-something African Americans. This appears to have been part of an ongoing campaign since early 2015,” said Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
A month after this article ran, Tumblr let its users know that, yes, the platform had been infected with Russian propaganda. In a blog post, Tumblr outlined steps it was taking to correct the problem and made public a list of 84 accounts known to be run by Russian trolls. Additionally, it emailed users to let them know if they’d engaged with IRA trolls on their own Tumblr accounts.
I received one of those emails.
I actually already knew that Russian trolls had engaged with I Like Hillary and that I might have unknowingly reblogged IRA-created content. When I tweeted about the initial article and the Tumblr I ran, Jonathan Albright(the researcher quoted above) reached out to me. He’d taken a look at my Tumblr and it took him less than five minutes of scanning the comments to find inflammatory posts from known Russian trolls. I’d missed this entirely.
How did Russian trolls use Tumblr specifically? As this piece in New York magazine points out, we have a pretty clear idea because the chains of reblogged posts of Russian origin still exist:
But Tumblr also provides our best glimpse of the IRA’s actual practices, what they posted, and how these users inserted themselves into American discourse. That’s because Tumblr’s primary interaction, reblogging, requires users to duplicate another user’s post onto their own profile. User B reblogs User A, and on User B’s blog, User A’s comment remains. In essence, the structure of Tumblr is millions of users copy-pasting each other. If Tumblr were to wipe every instance of Russian activity, it would also “break the reblog chain,” wiping every user interaction that came after an IRA one. Tumblr opted against that, which means that, armed with a list of aliases and the indexing power of Google, you can find plenty of old posts from IRA trolls.
Mostly, it appears, the IRA’s Tumblr strategy was to rip popular Twitter posts and re-upload them to Tumblr.
Essentially, I gave Russian propagandists an outlet. I unknowingly allowed them to use something I’d created online in their active measures campaign. I was duped.
The tech companies have been reluctant to tell users that they were exposed to Russian propaganda. Given how Facebook users reacted with anger when they were told about their own exposure, I can understand the reluctance of others. Tumblr waited too long to inform its users, but I appreciate the way the company did it, especially its decision to provide the list of account names and leaving the chains of reblogged content intact.
No one wants to admit they were duped. I’ve long known this intellectually, but now I understand it personally. It’s embarrassing to learn that something you made became a tool for Russian propagandists. I’ve been studying all of this for more than a year, but it had never occurred to me that my own social media content might have been involved in a Russian propaganda effort. We were all duped to some degree. Russia used our own online lives against us, with the goal of pitting Americans against one another.