Russian intelligence officials waged a campaign to spread disinformation and exploit social fractures during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, two new reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee show. But the social media disinformation campaign didn't end with the election of President Donald Trump.
When reporters began to uncover evidence of their efforts, the Russian trolls kept trolling, according to the researchers.
"As articles began to emerge about election interference — pointing the finger at Russia — the IRA didn't shy away or ignore it," experts affiliated with the firm New Knowledge wrote in their white paper, The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency.
Instead, they dug in, seeking to create further confusion and amplify the rifts that divided the country in the aftermath of Trump's victory.
The researchers found that there were approximately 70 posts mocking the idea of Russian meddling. One account in particular, "The Red Pill," repeatedly hammered on this narrative.
The Russian trolls targeted American media outlets that were covering the story, such as CNN and The New York Times, and pursued a broader assault on American information sources. The purpose of the campaign was to sow confusion and blur the lines between fact and fiction. The researchers found that the trolls accomplished their goals with "skill and precision."
"It used derision and disparagement in content targeting the Right-leaning pages, to create and amplify the narrative that the whole investigation was nonsense, that [former FBI Director James] Comey and [special counsel Robert] Mueller were corrupt, and that the emerging Russia stories were a 'weird conspiracy' pushed by 'liberal crybabies,'" the researchers wrote.
The trolling effort persisted after Mueller was appointed in May 2017 to lead the investigation into potential links between Trump and the Russian government. After his appointment, Mueller was personally targeted by the intelligence service, according to the researchers.
"Posts designed to erode support for the Russia investigation, and some with the goal of discrediting Mueller himself, appeared on both Facebook and Instagram right-wing-targeted accounts in mid-2017," the researchers wrote in a slide show summarizing their research that was presented to the Senate committee this month.
Many of the posts featured Trump's electoral rival Hillary Clinton. They came as Trump himself sought to downplay the investigation into his campaign and began referring to the probe as a "witch hunt."
The investigation also found that the trolls sought to elevate comments made by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg after the election.
Zuckerberg said after the election that it was a "pretty crazy idea" that disinformation on Facebook could have impacted the election results.
The CEO later said he regretted making those comments, but researchers found that after the election, Russian trolls capitalized on his comments.
"One new narrative was a cluster of images that tied to stories about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denying that people sharing things on Facebook could have had any impact on the result of the election," researchers wrote.
Zuckerberg has been in the crosshairs of Congress following the 2016 election and amid accusations lobbed by the right that Facebook is censoring conservatives. Those accusations were amplified by Russian trolls, according to New Knowledge.
Shares of the company have declined this year amid fears about the company's trustworthiness.
A spokesperson for Facebook said the company is fully cooperating with investigators and had provided thousands of ads and other pieces of content to lawmakers and the public. The company said it had made progress combating interference on its platforms.
The reports presented to the Senate only represent the viewpoints of the experts who wrote them, and have not been endorsed by the committee itself. But on Monday, the intel panel's chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., called for increased information sharing from social media companies in the wake of the new reports.
"This newly released data demonstrates how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology, and how the IRA actively worked to erode trust in our democratic institutions," Burr said in a statement. "Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped."