Instagram became the preferred tool in Russia’s propaganda war

Facebook, Twitter or Google’s YouTube: those are the social media platforms that garnered most of the focus of lawmakers, researchers and journalists when the Russian disinformation campaign around the 2016 US presidential election first came into focus.

But according to two new, comprehensive reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of which was released on Monday and the other leaked over the weekend, Instagram was where the real action was.

Disinformation and meddling may have reached more people on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, but the posts got far more play on Instagram. In a years-long propaganda campaign that preceded the election and which didn’t stop after, Facebook’s photo-sharing subsidiary generated responses that dwarfed those of other platforms: researchers counted 187 million Instagram comments, likes and other user reactions, which was more than Twitter and Facebook combined.

The Washington Post [paywall] quoted Philip N. Howard, head of the Oxford research group that participated in one of the reports:

Instagram’s appeal is that’s where the kids are, and that seems to be where the Russians went.

A massive, multi-year campaign to manipulate Americans

One of the reports was commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee and written by the social media research firm New Knowledge, Columbia University and Canfield Research. According to that report, Russia’s propaganda war was broadened to reach the US starting in 2014 and would eventually spread to reach a “massive” scale.

According to the New Knowledge report, the Russian campaign reached 126 million people on Facebook, generated 10.4 million tweets on Twitter, uploaded 1,000+ videos to YouTube, and reached over 20 million users on Instagram.

The second report, written by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and network analysis firm Graphika, became public when the Post obtained it and published its highlights on Sunday.

Some of those highlights:

  • They’ve targeted Robert S. Mueller III. Russians “fluent in American trolling culture” went after special counsel Mueller following the election, when he was appointed to investigate alleged Russian election interference. The researchers said that Russian operatives used 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.” For example, one Instagram post falsely claimed that Mueller had worked in the past with “radical Islamic groups.”
  • Humor. The researchers found that activity coming from the Russian government-linked propaganda factory known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) included making fun of the Mueller investigation and of Hillary Clinton. One widely shared image showed Hillary Clinton with the caption: “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.”
  • Instagram. The researchers found that “Instagram was perhaps the most effective platform” for the IRA, though they were active on many others. The group created a mere 133 Instagram accounts, but a dozen of them attracted more than 100,000 followers, making them what’s commonly viewed as “influencer” accounts, Wired reports. The researchers say the Russians doubled their internet use in the months after Trump’s election.
  • A multipronged social media jack-knife. The operatives hopped from platform to platform, enabling them to milk each for its particular tools and focus and making it impossible for any one company to find and stamp out all the misleading posts. They could get at “political and journalistic elites” on Twitter, the Post reports, while Facebook is handy for slicing and dicing the electorate via demographics and ideological leanings. They particularly focused on energizing conservatives and suppressing African Americans, who tend to vote Democratic. From the Post:

    YouTube provided a free online library of more than 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 various other websites also played roles.


On Tuesday, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) kicked off a week-long boycott of Facebook and Instagram over the findings about how African Americans have been targeted on social media and the platform’s history of “data hacks which unfairly target its users of color.” The group also returned a Facebook donation.

In a statement, Derrick Johnson, NAACP President and CEO, called Facebook’s part in the Russian campaign “reprehensible”:

Facebook’s engagement with partisan firms, its targeting of political opponents, the spread of misinformation and the utilization of Facebook for propaganda promoting disingenuous portrayals of the African American community is reprehensible.

The Post reports that top Democrats are reading the reports as indicative of the need for further study of social media and new regulations in order to prevent further electoral manipulations from foreign actors. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee:

I think all the platforms remain keenly vulnerable, and I don’t have the confidence yet companies have invested the resources and people power necessary to deal with the scope of the problem.

Republican lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee either declined to comment or hadn’t responded to inquiries from the Post as of yesterday.