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Russian actors seeking to spread misinformation around the 2016 U.S. presidential election found the most success on Facebook-owned Instagram, according to a new independent report commissioned by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
Cybersecurity research firm New Knowledge, in collaboration with researchers from Columbia University and Canfield Research LLC, reviewed data from Twitter, Facebook and Google parent company Alphabet. Researchers said that of all the platforms they reviewed, "Instagram was perhaps the most effective platform for the Internet Research Agency," referring to the firm that spread false information on these platforms and is linked to a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The IRA was able to gain a following of more than 10,000 people across 40 percent of its accounts, the report said, with 12 accounts reaching more than 100,000 followers. All of the tech companies were asked by the SSCI to provide data for accounts they believed were linked to the IRA, but did not hand over all available data nor provide methodology for identifying accounts, according to the researchers. Of the 116,000 Instagram posts the company provided for the report, researchers found 187 million engagements on the platform. By comparison, the 61,500 unique Facebook posts the company provided were found to have 77 million engagements and the 10.4 million tweets provided by Twitter garnered 73 million engagements.
Organic posts drove engagement on Instagram, contrary to the popular theory that advertising on Facebook's properties was mainly to blame for misinformation.
"The ad engagements were a minor factor in a much broader, organically driven influence operation," researchers wrote.
Accounts linked to the IRA sought to grow their reach in part by selling merchandise on the platform, according to the report, and were often used in the "Black community-targeted accounts" with hashtags #supportblackbusiness and #buyblack. The accounts would occasionally offer discounts in exchange for sharing the content. The IRA had its own sites to sell merchandise, which researchers said would provide the IRA with personal information of people who purchased products from the sites, in addition to a potential source of revenue. The IRA could also potentially identify "committed audiences" to target people with similar profile traits through Facebook's ad platform.