Russia's election propaganda agency functioned pretty much like a normal marketing firm

Russia's propaganda campaign followed the normal Western PR and marketing firm playbook

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published December 17, 2018 6:28PM (EST)


Two new reports released Monday, both of which reveal new details regarding Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 political election, say some pretty damning things about the American political landscape and how to manipulate it. Yet the picture painted by both reports is perhaps most telling for its revelations into how Russia's Internet Research Agency, the intentionally mundane name for its propaganda division, functioned pretty much like a normal, Western marketing or PR firm, all the way down to the way it rewarded employees based on their success with engagement metrics.

The reports, which were both prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee by independent researchers and obtained by various publications prior to their releases, tell a story of a massive effort led by Russian intelligence officials to exploit America’s political and racial divides by implementing digital advertising tactics to spread propaganda on social media.

The first report, by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, offers more insight into how the Internet Research Agency (the specific Russian agency charged by U.S. officials for interfering in the election) crafted its messaging to favor President Donald Trump. Previously, it had been reported that the Russian-backed groups weren't merely supporting Trump campaigns, but they also worked to organize support for Clinton’s Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders, as part of a larger strategy to sow political discord. While this is true, it was all, according to the Oxford University report, to benefit Trump.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” the report says. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

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,” the report emphasizes. Indeed, this serves at the latest bit of evidence to suggest Russian helped Trump win the election.

According to the report, campaigns by the Internet Research Agency reached tens of millions of users in the U.S. between 2013 and 2018 on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Ironically, the tactics used to deploy the information were adapted by “existing techniques from digital advertising.” In other words, the strategy was by inspired by American corporations' ruthless marketing tactics to make consumers buy their products and view their brands favorably.

“This strategy is not an invention for politics and foreign intrigue, it is consistent with techniques used in digital marketing,” the report states. “This overall strategy appeared to have served three advantages. First, it enabled the IRA to reach their target audiences across multiple platforms and formats. Indeed, the IRA's core messages and target audiences show consistency across the various platforms they used to reach the US population. Second, it helped create a semblance of legitimacy for the false organizations and personas managed by the IRA.”

The third advantage, according to the report, was to redirect traffic to other platforms in the event that their identities were revealed. In this case, hypothetically, a fake account could complain about being removed or suspended from one platform on another platform.

The report categorizes messages in Facebook and Instagram ads, and organic posts, that were targeted to “elicit outrage“ from African Americans; conservative and right-wing voters; LGBT and liberal voters; Mexican American voters; and Muslim American voters. The mission was to execute a clickbait strategy to drive traffic to Facebook and Instagram pages with the aid of polarizing content.

“Messaging to conservative and right-wing voters sought to do three things: repeat patriotic and anti-immigrant slogans; elicit outrage with posts about liberal appeasement of ‘others’ at the expense of US citizens; and encourage them to vote for Trump,” the report states. “Messaging to this segment of voters focused on divisive, and at times prejudiced and bigoted, statements about minorities, particularly Muslims. Well documented anti-Muslim tropes are present in both the ads and organic posts (for example claims about the burqa, blanket statements about Muslims as terrorists and sexual deviants).”

The second report by researchers for New Knowledge, Columbia University and Canfield Research emphasized the intricate effort to spread disinformation.

“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 report states.

It also offered new statistics, such as that Russians posted more than 1,000 YouTube videos as part of their campaign, highlighting the role the Google subsidiary played, too.

Overall, researchers from both reports underline one paradox of social media: it can bring human together and inspire democracy — but it can also tear a country's social fabric at the seams.

“We once celebrated the fact that social media let us express ourselves, share content, and personalize our media consumption. It is certainly difficult to tell the story of the Arab Spring without acknowledging that social media platforms allowed democracy advocates to coordinate themselves in surprising new ways: to send their demands for political change cascading across North Africa and the Middle East,” researchers from the first report concluded. “But the absence of human editors in our news feeds also makes it easy for political actors to manipulate social networks.”

“To start to address these challenges, we need to develop stronger rules and norms for the use of social media, big data and new information technologies during elections,” they concluded.


By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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