Senate Intelligence Reports On Russia Detail Broad Disinformation Plan The studies for the Senate intelligence committee assess how broadly Russians wielded social media to reach millions of Americans and suppress Democratic and black voting.

New Reports Detail Expansive Russia Disinformation Scheme Targeting U.S.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Two reports out today provide the clearest picture yet of the extent to which Russia went to influence voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election. The reports focus on a Russian troll factory's use of nearly every major social media platform from Facebook to YouTube. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has combed through the documents and joins us now. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

CHANG: So who exactly authored these reports?

LUCAS: Well, this is the work of private researchers and cybersecurity experts. And what they did is examine the activities of this Russian troll farm that we've talked a lot of bit about. That's the Internet Research Agency or the IRA. This is a Russian-based company that has been charged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. Now, the reports are based on data that the social media companies and the Senate Intelligence Committee provided them - important to remember that that committee is investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 election.

CHANG: Right.

LUCAS: It views its role as getting to the bottom of what the Russians did and then explaining that to the American public. That's why we're able to see these reports. That of course stands in contrast to the special counsel's investigation, which is focused on criminal conduct and prosecuting those who broke the law.

CHANG: OK, so we have been talking so much since the election about Russia's manipulation of social media. What do these new reports add that is actually new?

LUCAS: Right, well, first off, what they confirmed bottom line is the big-picture conclusions that the U.S. intelligence community came to, which is that Russia's social media manipulation was designed to sow discord, to divide Americans and to hurt Hillary Clinton and ultimately to help Donald Trump. But they also provide a greater level of detail than we previously had. They show that the IRA built up fake personas across all sorts of social media platforms. That lent them legitimacy. They then used those to target specific audiences. Think of right-wing, anti-immigration folks or some left-leaning groups.

But what's really interesting is the research shows that the Russians specifically targeted African-American communities at a higher rate than any other. And the Russians also pushed a voter suppression narrative to a degree that social media companies themselves have played down.

CHANG: OK, so you say the Russians targeted African-American communities more than any other community. How did they do that?

LUCAS: Well, these efforts were focused on developing an audience and even recruiting assets - so people to act in the real world to, say, stage rallies. Now, one of the reports says that a main message that was pushed to African-American voters was that it was best to sit out the election, to boycott the election; that served their interest.

CHANG: And this is to suppress turnout.

LUCAS: Right. And then one example of a fake persona that was created by the IRA that got a lot of traction is an Instagram account set up with the username blackstagram. And it had more than 300,000 followers.

CHANG: It is worth pointing out that much of the focus up until now has been on Facebook and Twitter. But these researchers are saying that the Russians also use Instagram and other social media platforms, right?

LUCAS: Right. One of the things that these reports made clear is that the Russians leveraged every major social media platform. Instagram had largely stayed under the radar. That's no longer the case. These reports say that Instagram was actually a huge part of Russia's efforts online. For example, one of the reports says that fake Russian content on Facebook received 76.5 million engagements. On Instagram, fake Russian content earned more than two times as many engagements as that.

CHANG: Wow.

LUCAS: And researchers say, importantly, looking ahead, that the Russians have shifted a lot of their activity to Instagram since the election.

CHANG: Which is an important point. The Russians are still using social media to try to influence Americans, right?

LUCAS: That's absolutely right. And it's a really important point to make that Russians continue to use fake accounts on these platforms for nefarious purposes.

CHANG: So you mentioned that the Senate supplied the data these researchers used. Is Congress planning to do anything more to stop Russia or any other country from using social media to influence U.S. voters?

LUCAS: Well, there's certainly been chatter from lawmakers about possible legislation. Social media companies would prefer to deal with this without any sort of legislation, regulation of course. But look. One of the reasons that we are talking about this and this report is out is it puts the public's attention on material online and with the hope that Americans will be more judicious about what they're engaging with online.

CHANG: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you.

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