There was a huge effort by Russian operatives to target Black social media users during the 2016 election in hopes of discouraging Democratic voter turnout. The trolls were stoking sentiments of racial divide in the U.S. in support of electing Donald Trump, who on the campaign trail asked Black people, “What the hell do you have to lose”
Reports released on Monday indicate that Instagram became the tool of choice to politically profit from issues important to the Black community.
Commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the in-depth reports provide an analysis of millions of social media posts created by the Russian propaganda wing Internet Research Agency (IRA).
When the IRA came under scrutiny for Facebook and Twitter posts, the trolls turned to Instagram. A total number of 116,205 of their posts had 187 million engagements with users.
In comparison, on Facebook (Instagram’s parent company), there were 61,483 posts, and 77 million engagements.
For example, the account @blackstagram_ alone accumulated more than 300,000 followers and garnered more than 28 million reactions.
Successful posts centered around Black cultural issues and Black pride. Hashtags were used such as #supportblackbusiness and #buyblack.
“Instagram was a significant front in the IRA’s influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in congressional testimony,” researchers for the New Knowledge report wrote.
They added, “Our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis.”
Russian Instagram posts generated 185 million likes and 4 million user comments, across all three years covered by the report.
They created the website, “Black Matters US,” which describes itself as a “nonprofit news outlet.”
The New Knowledge report includes an example of the social-ecosystem-wide effort for Black Matters:
From the New Knowledge report
The report by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Research Project details how Russians discouraged Black voters from going to the polls. The majority of the content was designed for a Black audience to create distrust in democratic institutions, and reduce Black turnout for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate.
“Messaging to African Americans sought to divert their political energy away from established political institutions by preying on anger with structural inequalities faced by African Americans,” the report states. “These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead.”
The NAACP has returned a donation it recently received from Facebook and is leading a #LogOut of Facebook and Instagram for one week, starting on Tuesday. The organization is asking its partners, social media followers, and supporters to do the same.
“The #LogOutFacebook is a protest a way to signify to Facebook that the data and privacy of its users of color matter more than its corporate interests and that as the largest social network in the world,” the NAACP said, in a statement.
The efforts of the Russian operatives echo that of Trump on the campaign trail. He attacked Democrats and Clinton for treatment of Black voters. Meanwhile, his inner circle was attempting to suppress the Black vote.
In July, when Trump met with Vladimir Putin at a summit in Helsinki, Finland, he did not hold Putin accountable for Russia’s role in interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
Putin denied having been involved in the U.S. election, and the president insulted the U.S. calling it “foolish.”
“I hold both countries responsible,” Trump said. “I think that the United States has been foolish. I think that we’ve all been foolish. We should have had this dialogue a long time ago, a long time, frankly, before I got to office.”
In June 2016, when Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee, his company planned to give the $50 million penthouse, in a planned skyscraper in Moscow, to Putin.