LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Silicon Valley goes to Washington this week. Officials from Facebook, Google and Twitter appear before Congress to talk about their social platforms and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. NPR will be bringing you stories on this all week this morning to kick things off. NPR's Laura Sydell reports on social media that was created to cause divisions in the United States linked to Russia.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: The first thing to know about Russian propaganda is that it doesn't say it's Russian propaganda. It might simply be a social media post, a tweet or a Facebook page about a topic that you find interesting. M'tep Blount is a supporter of Black Lives Matter. One day, she saw a group page that might have been affiliated with the movement. It was called Blacktivist.
M'TEP BLOUNT: It was on my news feed. It was, oh, you have a friend who's a part of this group. And I was like, all right. I'll look into it. It definitely had a big following...
SYDELL: ...As in over 400,000 followers in late August. The Blacktivist page was sharing information about police brutality. And videos often appeared on the page of police beating African-Americans in small towns.
BLOUNT: It was like, wow. This is happening in this community, too. I really hope they do something about it. But they probably aren't going to do.
SYDELL: As it turns out, the Blacktivist page was linked to Russia. And Facebook took it down. It doesn't seem as if the Blacktivist group was trying to change Blount's mind about anything. And it was carefully crafted to attract people like Blount whose behavior on Facebook made it clear that they mistrusted police and were concerned about civil rights.
JEFF HANCOCK: Propaganda can actually have a real effect. Even though we might already believe what we're hearing, this can heighten our arousal or our emotions.
SYDELL: Jeff Hancock is a psychologist who heads the Stanford University Social Media Lab. Hancock has studied the ways people are affected by seeing information that confirms their beliefs. In his study, he asked people how they felt about an issue before showing them stories. So he says if someone thought Hillary Clinton was corrupt, he showed posts confirming it. If people were worried about police brutality, he showed them posts of police brutalizing civilians.
HANCOCK: If I'm worried about police brutality then, you know, the more times I'm exposed to that, the stronger it makes me feel about it.
SYDELL: Hancock says this kind of propaganda is designed to enhance divisions...
HANCOCK: ...And by doing that, reduce the will to vote. The anger within each other - it really truly is just a simple divide-and-conquer approach.
SYDELL: It's an approach that Russia has frequently used around the world, says former Russian Ambassador Michael McFaul.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: They think that that leads to polarization, that leads to arguments among ourselves. And it takes us off the world stage.
SYDELL: The Russian campaign spread across all forms of social media. Take a Twitter account like @TEN_GOP, which had more than 100,000 followers. It called itself the unofficial account of the Tennessee Republican Party. But it wasn't. It was reportedly set up from Russia. The account, which has been shut down, sent out a stream of fake news such as a tweet falsely stating that there was voter fraud in Florida. The fake news got plenty of amplification. There's no evidence that President Trump or his supporters knew about the accounts linked to Russia. Still, it was retweeted by Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump Jr. And then Trump himself thanked the account for its support. Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, has been investigating Russian use of social media.
CLINT WATTS: It has been retweeted, cited many, many times by people in the Trump campaign or Republican operatives and even in the mainstream media. And so that shows how just one account with just a lot of effort can actually influence the discussion and be cited in the debate.
SYDELL: Watt says this kind of media propaganda campaign is not exclusive to the Russians. This is simply how it works in the digital age. After every major news event, the social-media sphere starts filling up with conspiracy theories and fake news. Under pressure from Congress, Facebook has handed over a $100,000 ad campaign with 3,000 ads by Russians to Congress. It's promised more transparency about who is behind advertising campaigns. Twitter says it will no longer take ad money from two Russian media outlets. And there's still a lot we don't know about the use of digital platforms. But we may have a chance to learn more when Twitter, Facebook and Google sit down to answer questions in front of Congress later this week. Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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