According to a January 6, 2017 report from the US Director of National Intelligence (Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections 2017), Russia employed a network of state-funded Internet “trolls” to contribute to its broad influence campaign targeting the 2016 US election. These trolls primarily acted to amplify stories or scandals coming from Russian state-funded media sources, and to amplify the role of Wikileaks in the election campaign. Also referred to as ‘bots’ or ‘web brigades,’ trolls generally carried pro-Trump messages and commented in Trump’s favor on Internet stories and in social media. Source, Wiki
For example, the Internet Research Agency is the most well-known group of professional Russian Internet trolls.
On September 9, 2013, independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a story revealing that a St. Petersburg company called Internet Research Agency Ltd., founded a few months before, was specially equipped for the work of Internet trolls to push pro-Kremlin propaganda. Source (machine translation)
In May 2014, a group of hackers called “Anonymous International” leaked documents stolen from managers at the Internet Research Agency. It was revealed that the company was controlled by Concord, a Russian holding company. Concord’s founder and director general was retired Russian military colonel and former chief of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Moscow, Mikhail Bystrov; and Concord was financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman with close ties to Russian intelligence and to Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin’s Concord holding company was also reported to be linked with the Russian Ministry of Defense. Source1 (machine translation) Source2 (machine translation)
Hacked correspondence between Concord and Internet Research Agency is said to have revealed Concord’s covert control of the company, as well as payments, made in cash, to hundreds of Internet trolls. The hacked documents additionally revealed that the Internet Research Agency was linked to a number of Russian and Ukrainian news agencies, print, and online publications. Source (machine translation); Source2
The Internet Research Agency would eventually move into English-speaking media. On September 11, 2014, the Internet Research Agency orchestrated a hoax claiming an explosion had taken place at a chemical plant in Centerville, Louisiana, resulting in a release of toxic gas. Reports were sent to local residents via text messages and spread through social media, including claims that the Islamic State ISIS had claimed responsibility for the attack. In fact, there was no such explosion or release of toxic gas. Source
Russia’s Internet trolls have been identified posing as American conservatives pushing pro-Trump propaganda, or “dezinformatsiya.” Source Several such trolls who were paid to influence the US election were interviewed by Samantha Bee. Source
When a Finnish reporter published reports of these Russian trolls, she was subjected to retaliation in the form of extended online harassment, publication of true and false reports about her past, and small protests outside her office. Source
Russia-funded trolls have been specifically identified utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and Google to spread Kremlin propaganda.
The Internet Research Agency used false identities to create about 470 identified accounts. They used these accounts to purchase advertisements to spread divisive political propaganda in the US between 2015-2017, both before and after the election. Source Facebook estimated that the Russia-funded propaganda in the advertisements originating from these accounts was directly served to 29 million people, and after accounting for sharing among users, they were seen by roughly 126 million people in the US, more than half the total US voting population. Source
The Internet Research Agency created thousands of accounts and posted hundreds of thousands of tweets just during the period from September 1, 2016 to November 15, 2016 to push propaganda and disinformation. They also purchased a significant volume of advertising on the platform. Source In addition, the Russian government-controlled news site RT spent $274,100 advertising on its platform in 2016. Source
Russian agents purchased many advertisements to spread disinformation via YouTube, Gmail, Google Search, and via Google’s DoubleClick ad network. However, the activity Google identified had not originated with the troll farm Internet Research Agency, suggesting that the Kremlin effort was even more widespread than previously believed. Source
Themes of Propaganda
As discussed further below, the themes of the Kremlin-originated propaganda pushed both far-right pro-Trump themes, and left-wing, anti-Clinton (and anti-Trump) themes, targeting the Hillary Clinton campaign from both sides.
For example, Facebook has confirmed that propaganda accounts established by the Internet Research Agency included “SecuredBorders” and “Heart of Texas,” both of which had used divisive, extremist rhetoric to organize rallies in the US as the election approached.
“SecuredBorders” was a US anti-immigrant page with 133,000 followers when Facebook shut it down. Some examples of Internet Research Agency memes posted under the guise of SecuredBorders (Source):
Heart of Texas
“Heart of Texas” generally promoted the Texas secession movement, but often posted extremist memes with violent rhetoric that linked refugees to crime and promoted Islamophobia. Heart of Texas had nearly a quarter of a million followers when Facebook took down the account. Source Some examples of Internet Research Agency memes posted under the Heart of Texas persona:
In May 2016, Heart of Texas organized a protest at the opening of a library at an Islamic Center in Houston. The rally, called “Stop Islamization of Texas,” was being staged based on false claims that the Islamic library had received public funding. Source
In early November 2016, Heart of Texas created a Facebook event for a “Texit statewide rally” titled, “Get ready to secede.” With this event, the Heart of Texas group attempted to organize a series of rallies across Texas on November 5 to demand that Texas secede from the US if Hillary Clinton won the election. While few attended the rallies, those who signed a petition to express support for the movement had their information delivered to the Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM), a Texas secession organization known to have previously received funding from the Kremlin. Source1 Source2
Other identified Internet Research Agency activities promoted Green Party presidential candidate Jill stein, and Clinton’s Democratic party rival Bernie Sanders. Source Their Sanders support would continue even after he had conceded Clinton’s win in the primary and dropped out of the race. Source
Another theme of Internet Research Agency propaganda appeared to target right-wing audiences to portray groups that the right-wing audience was likely to oppose, such as Muslims and the Black Lives Matter movement, as extremist, violent, or threatening. Source One such advertisement revealed to have originated from the Kremlin featured photographs of a black woman pulling the trigger of a rifle. Congressional investigators characterized ads of this type as being designed to encourage militancy of oppressed groups, and at the same time, to stoke fears within white communities. Source
For example, “United Muslims of America” was an Internet Research Agency impostor account that impersonated an actual organization. The Facebook page ostensibly promoted Muslim causes, but in most cases, appeared to promote right-wing stereotypes of Muslims and pro-Kremlin causes. Some examples of memes posted by the Internet Research Agency under the guise of United Muslims of America: Source
See also: #Nov4ItBegins