Mueller target of Russian disinformation teams, say new reports

Two new reports on Monday show how Russian operatives unloaded on special counsel Robert Mueller through fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and beyond, falsely claiming he was corrupt, among other allegations.
Two new reports on Monday show how Russian operatives unloaded on special counsel Robert Mueller through fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and beyond, falsely claiming he was corrupt, among other allegations.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

They show use of social media to reach all segments of US society

WASHINGTON • Months after US President Donald Trump took office, Russia's disinformation teams trained their sights on a new target: special counsel Robert Mueller. Having worked to help get Mr Trump into the White House, they now worked to neutralise the biggest threat to his staying there.

The Russian operatives unloaded on Mr Mueller through fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and beyond, falsely claiming that the former FBI director was corrupt and that the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election were crackpot conspiracies.

One Instagram post - which emerged as an especially potent weapon in the Russian social media arsenal - claimed that Mr Mueller had worked in the past with "radical Islamic groups".

Such tactics exemplified how Russian teams ranged nimbly across social media platforms in a shrewd online influence operation aimed squarely at American voters.

The effort started earlier than commonly understood and lasted longer while relying on the strengths of different sites to manipulate distinct slices of the electorate, according to two comprehensive new reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee and released on Monday.

One of the reports, written by Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Project and network analysis firm Graphika, became public when The Washington Post obtained it and published its highlights on Sunday.

The other report was by social media research firm New Knowledge, Columbia University and Canfield Research.

Together, the reports describe the Russian campaign with sweep and detail not before available. The researchers analysed more than 10 million posts and messages on every major social media platform to understand how the Russians used American technology to build a large disinformation machine, with each piece playing a designated role while supporting the others with links and other connections.

The researchers analysed more than 10 million posts and messages on every major social media platform to understand how the Russians used American technology to build a large disinformation machine, with each piece playing a designated role while supporting the others with links and other connections.

The reports also underscore the difficulty of defeating Russian disinformation as operatives moved easily from platform to platform.

Twitter hit political and journalistic elites. Facebook and its advertising targeting tools divided the electorate into demographic and ideological segments ripe for manipulation, with particular focus on energising conservatives and suppressing African-Americans, who traditionally are more likely to vote for Democrats.

YouTube provided a free online library of over 1,100 disinformation videos. PayPal helped raise money and move politically themed merchandise designed by the Russian teams, such as "I SUPPORT AMERICAN LAW ENFORCEMENT" T-shirts. Tumblr, Medium, Vine, Reddit and other sites also played roles.

Social media researchers said the weaponisation of these sites and services highlights the broadening challenge they face in combating the increasingly sophisticated tactics of Russia and other foreign malefactors online. "Some of the platforms that don't have as much traffic, but still have highly engaged communities, are the most vulnerable to a challenge like misinformation," said Mr Graham Brookie, head of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

"They don't have the resources to dedicate to making their platforms more resilient."

One unexpected star of the new reports was Facebook's photo-sharing subsidiary Instagram. Over the years of the disinformation campaign, Instagram generated responses on a scale beyond any of the others - with 187 million comments, likes and other user reactions, more than Twitter and Facebook combined. But it had been the least scrutinised of the major platforms before this week as lawmakers, researchers and journalists focused more heavily on Facebook, Twitter and Google.

Instagram's use by the Russians more than doubled in the first six months after Mr Trump's election, the researchers found. It also offered access to a younger demographic and provided easy likes in a simple, engaging format.

The report anchored by New Knowledge found that the Russians posted on Instagram 116,000 times, nearly double the number of times they did on Facebook. The most popular posts praised African-American culture and achievement, but the Russians also targeted this community for voter suppression messages on multiple platforms, urging boycotts of the election or spreading false information on how to vote.

The emergence of Mr Mueller as a significant target also highlights the adaptability of the Russian campaign. He was appointed in May last year as special counsel to investigate allegations of Russian influence on the Trump campaign. In that role, he has indicted the St Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, the Kremlin-linked troll farm behind the disinformation campaign, and others affiliated with the disinformation campaign on criminal charges.

The Russian operatives often spread jokes to undermine the investigations into their disinformation campaign, the researchers found. One showed Democrat Hillary Clinton saying: "Everyone I don't like is A Russian Hacker." Another showed a woman in a car talking to a police officer, with the caption: "IT'S NOT MY FAULT OFFICER, THE RUSSIANS HACKED MY SPEEDOMETER."

WASHINGTON POST

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2018, with the headline 'Mueller target of Russian disinformation teams, say new reports'. Print Edition | Subscribe