If you played Pokémon Go during the runup to the 2016 presidential election, you may have been targeted by the Russian government’s massive propaganda campaign.
Indeed, Moscow’s efforts to influence the election stretched so far beyond social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that Russian trolls even found time to peddle “LGBT-positive sex toys” and set up a voter fraud hotline.
Two new reports released Monday paint the most detailed and bizarre portrait yet of Russian online efforts to tip the 2016 election in favor of then-candidate Donald Trump, revealing an astonishingly vast and intricate propaganda campaign that reached 126 million Americans on Facebook alone.
The reports, commissioned by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, recount attempts to motivate conservative voters by stoking outrage, while demoralizing left-leaning and black voters in particular, to dampen their turnout. And the trolls didn’t quit after the votes were counted — they doubled down and kept at it to resounding success, researchers said.
The trolls even hawked merchandise online, from T-shirts to skin-care products and other novelty items — apparently to generate income, build their online followings and help gather information about fresh targets.
Here are some of the key takeaways.
INSTAGRAM > FACEBOOK
Instagram played an even larger role in Russia’s cyber-campaign than Facebook and Twitter combined, at least according to one metric.
Researchers found about 77 million engagements on Facebook and 73 million engagements on original content on Twitter. That compared to 187 million engagements on Instagram, according to New Knowledge, the cybersecurity company that collaborated with Columbia University and Canfield Research to produce one of the two reports commissioned by the Senate.
And Instagram will continue to play a major role in the propaganda war, they said.
“ƒOur assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis,” New Knowledge wrote.
The Russian effort relied extensively on memes that combined big images with minimal text to create emotionally resonant messages that could be easily understood, researchers said.
The Russian trolls, which are often referred to as the Internet Research Agency, or IRA, left no major social media company unexploited.
They also tapped into YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, Google+, Meetup, VKontakte and LiveJournal.
“The breadth of the attack included games, browser extensions, and music apps created by the IRA and pushed to targeted groups, including U.S. teenagers,” researchers found.
Naturally, even Pokémon Go was eventually targeted by Moscow.
“The popular game Pokémon Go was incorporated into the operation,” specifically as part of an effort to exploit racial tensions in American society, New Knowledge wrote. The report pointed to a Tumblr post that “advocated that players of Pokémon Go name their Pokémon with a police brutality victim’s name.”
RUSSIAN TROLL MERCH
The new reports also uncovered novel approaches to engaging with the voting public, including some that jumped the barrier between the cyber world and real life.
Online accounts controlled by the Russian troll army sold their own branded merch, apparently using web sites that allow users to upload images and hawk T-shirts and hoodies, according to Renee DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge.
“We have no idea if anyone called them.”
The trolls also promoted and distributed coupon codes for real-life American businesses with no affiliation to the Russian effort, possibly with the goal of expanding their following among a targeted niche audience, DiResta said.
Russian trolls peddled everything from “LGBT-positive sex toys” to patriotic-themed, red-white-and-blue wall art.
The trolls also created hotlines, including an 800 number that sought out tips about voter fraud.
Another reached out to those seeking help with sexual addiction, in what the report ominously called a possible attempt to create “an opportunity to blackmail or manipulate these individuals in the future.”
It remains unclear what became of those numbers, or the people who dialed them up, according to the researchers.
“We have no idea if anyone called them,” DiResta told VICE News.
Suppressing the vote
African-American voters were a particular focus of the IRA’s propaganda campaign, the reports found.
“ƒThe most prolific IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted Black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing Black audiences and recruiting Black Americans as assets,” the New Knowledge report said.
The trolls aimed to persuade African-Americans to boycott elections, according to the report authored by the University of Oxford together with the social-media analysis firm Graphika. The campaign sought to stoke distrust by emphasizing incidents of police brutality, and to convince black voters that their efforts were best focused on solutions other than elections.
“Messaging to African-Americans sought to divert their political energy away from established political institutions by preying on anger with structural inequalities faced by African-Americans, including police violence, poverty, and disproportionate levels of incarceration,” the Oxford report concluded.
Russia’s online efforts also included attempts to motivate conservative and far-right voters through a heady cocktail of patriotism, outrage, racial resentment and outright conspiracy-mongering.
The messaging encouraged “extreme right-wing voters to be more confrontational,” and to spread “sensationalist, conspiratorial, and other forms of junk political news and misinformation to voters across the political spectrum,” the Oxford report found.
The conspiracy content tended to congregate on Twitter for some reason, researchers found, and included themes like Pizzagate, Qanon, the murder of Seth Rich, paranormal activity, aliens and anti-Semitism.
“Messaging to conservative and right-wing voters sought to do three things: repeat patriotic and anti-immigrant slogans; elicit outrage with posts about liberal appeasement of ‘others’ at the expense of U.S. citizens; and encourage them to vote for Trump,” the Oxford team wrote. “Messaging to this segment of voters focused on divisive, and at times prejudiced and bigoted, statements about minorities, particularly Muslims.”
IT AIN’T OVER
The propaganda efforts didn’t end after the 2016 vote was counted, or even after the IRA’s attempts to mess with the election were uncovered, researchers found.
Instead, the campaign broadened out to new areas, including the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, and even Trump’s tax reform initiative.
“These memes do continue to spread within the communities they were targeting.”
“IRA posts on Instagram and Facebook increased substantially after the election, with Instagram seeing the greatest increase in IRA activity,” researchers found. “Engagement rates increased and covered a widening range of public policy issues, national security issues, and issues pertinent to younger voters.”
Some of their efforts — cough, memes — are still being shared online today.
“These memes do continue to spread within the communities they were targeting, particularly content by lesser-known or quietly-removed pages,” researchers wrote.
Cover image: Spanish fans play the highly addictive Pokemon Go game during a gathering in central Madrid, Spain, Thursday, July 28, 2016, to play the computer game. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza)