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."