Russian meddling in American public life via social media apparently went beyond merely stirring up partisan feelings online. It extended to agents provocateurs setting up “real life” events, including political rallies and counter rallies.
That’s one of the latest revelations of the ongoing internal and external investigations into the roles — apparently unwitting —played by companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter in Russia’s attempts to influence U.S. politics.
According to one report, a Facebook group created by Russian operatives, BlackMattersUS, succeeded in attract 5,000 to 10,000 protesters to an anti-Trump rally in New York City on November 16, 2016, eight days after the election.
It seems likely that other events intended to polarize the electorate before and after the election were also organized by Russian interests via social media.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
During alarming testimony to Congress, reading from a prepared statement, Facebook’s representative, Colin Stretch, confirmed that as many as 126 million Americans may have seen ads on the social network that were paid for by entities associated with the Russian government or interests.
That number was revised upwards sharply from a previous estimate that around 10 million Americans may have seen one of 3,000 ads on Facebook.
The social media ads, some of which Stretch characterized as “inflammatory” and” downright offensives,” appeared as part of a broader campaign of disinformation and activities, seemingly orchestrated by groups associated with the Russian government. They were intended to sow discord and heighten tensions within American society around the election.
One such organization, the so-called Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, is run by a Kremlin insider and was behind most of the 3,000 ads identified by Facebook earlier in its investigation. According to Stretch, the social network has found clues suggesting the Russian “influence” campaign dates back to 2015.
Twitter’s representative, Sean Edgett, confirmed the company also found evidence of a widespread influence operation on its platform. To date, it has removed over 2,750 accounts it believes were operated by Russian interests — many of them associated with the IRA in St. Petersburg, up from just 200 accounts originally identified.
For its part, Google has uncovered evidence of at least 18 YouTube channels that were used by groups tied to Russia to post propaganda, often touching on hot-button issues such as race and immigration, which in total, were viewed over 300,000 times.