As more information becomes public about the extent of the Kremlin’s alleged interference in the 2016 US Presidential election, it has been revealed that Russian intelligence services made extensive use of both Twitter and Facebook to spread propaganda and disinformation intended to nurture divisions between Americans in the run-up to election day. Following internal investigations, Twitter has reported finding an estimated 36,000 accounts linked to the Russian government, while Facebook has found 60 million accounts it has determined to be bogus and another 200 million accounts that are false identities controlled by existing users.
The campaign of disinformation and incitement is a manifestation of the Russian doctrine of hybrid warfare, an approach to belligerency that makes full use of a nation’s cyber, political, and economic capabilities as well as military power. Antagonism between the US and the Kremlin has been growing for several years. According to multiple reports, including a recent episode of the PBS series Frontline, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin developed a particular animosity towards 2016 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton following her vocal support for anti-Putin protests during her tenure as Secretary of State.
At least one fake social media account, that of Jenna Abrams, succeeded in influencing major media. The Twitter account, which was later traced to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-funded “troll farm,” had 70,000 followers at its height and had been set up in 2014. Its persona was that of a straight-talking American woman and initially tweeted missives about pop culture with a skill that enabled content to go viral and give the creator a large following.
As the 2016 election loomed, though, the subject of the tweets changed from popular culture to politics and conspiracy theories, even tweet-sparring with former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Her controversial opinions, coupled with her large following, garnered her coverage in mainstream outlets like USA Today, The Washington Post, and CNN, along with Breitbart and InfoWars.
On Facebook, fake and cover accounts believed to be linked to the Kremlin reached an estimated 126 million Americans in 2016, according to the company’s internal research. Metadata provided to Congress shows that the Kremlin targeted divisive messages to Facebook users who are Muslim and those opposed to Muslim immigration into the US, and individuals concerned with police brutality and police supporters. Users in Texas were also targeted, most famously with a fake page promoting Texan secession that attracted 250,000 followers. As of yet, it is unknown how many of the accounts following the page were real Americans and how many were fake accounts set up by the Kremlin or its operatives.
With the US mid-term elections on the horizon and the 2020 Presidential race not far behind, US officials have warned that Russian efforts to drive a wedge between Americans and disrupt the nation’s political process are not over. Kremlin-backed and -influenced accounts have continued to nurture political divisions in the wake of events like this past August’s rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Congress meanwhile continues to hold hearings on the matter and some members have warned that they are willing to introduce legislation regulating social media platforms and limiting the kinds of political speech that can be expressed there. If they follow through with such a law, critics warn, they will have pushed America closer to the Kremlin than Vladimir Putin ever could have imagined.