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Russia’s U.S. Propaganda Campaign Infiltrated Instagram, Too

After Fast Company asked Facebook to confirm potential evidence, the company admitted that at least 5% of the Russian propaganda ads it has found appeared on Instagram.

Russia’s U.S. Propaganda Campaign Infiltrated Instagram, Too
[Source photo: CyberRabbit]

Facebook said last month it had found around 3,000 Russian-sponsored political ads that had spread on its platform since 2015, but it didn’t say if it had found similar posts on its Instagram network. The photo-sharing site has so far steered clear of the discussion on Russian propaganda.

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But Fast Company has found at least three suspicious Instagram accounts that share a number of posts and other features with the Facebook accounts, and that racked up more than 187,000 followers before they were shut down in recent months.

When asked to confirm potential evidence of Russia-backed activity on Instagram, a Facebook spokesperson told Fast Company on Friday he was “still looking into this one, so stay tuned.” Later in the afternoon, the company updated a blog post to clarify that it had, in fact, also turned over some Instagram posts to investigators. “Of the more than 3,000 ads that we have shared with Congress, 5% appeared on Instagram. About $6,700 was spent on these ads,” out of a total of around $100,000. The spokesperson declined to comment further.

Some now-suspended Instagram accounts shared many attributes with the Russia-linked pages that Facebook says blasted out messages to millions of users before and after last year’s U.S. election. On Instagram, users named Secured Borders, Blacktivist, and Rainbow Nation often included the same watermark logos, messages, and imagery that appeared on Facebook pages with similar names and themes (Secured.Borders, Blacktivists, LGBT Nation).

It’s not clear how many of the Instagram posts, collected on meme aggregation websites like me.me overlap with posts that spread on Facebook or on other platforms, but our investigation so far finds that several posts that share language and themes were published on sequential days by similarly or identically named Facebook and Instagram accounts, according to metadata cached on the web.

Geared toward various slices of the electorate, the campaigns appear to be part of a broader propaganda effort that seemed designed not necessarily to support a particular candidate, investigators have said, but to divide an already fractured nation. One expert has suggested some of the innocuous-seeming pages, including one focused on dog lovers, were meant to build up a large following that could later be mobilized to spread other messages.

The accounts Fast Company found targeted Black Lives Matter activists, LGBT groups, and Trump supporters. While some posts are innocuous-seeming memes about gay or black pride, many are outrightly political, apparently in support of President Trump.

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For example, one suspicious Instagram post, distributed on July 30, 2017 by @secured_borders_, takes direct aim at Sen. John McCain, an opponent of President Trump, while making light of the lawmaker’s recent cancer diagnosis.

The post shows the investor George Soros conversing with McCain. “Hey Johnny, I’m paying you a fortune so listen to me closely!” the text says, in red and yellow capital letters. “I don’t care how much cancer you have, get back to DC & backstab Trump any way you can! Globalist elites need you!”

The text below the photo elaborates on that theme. “Stop Obamacare repeal, support Democrats, and back-stab Trump in every way you can and tell all the deep state boys to do the same. We don’t need this America-loving president. If we won’t stop Trump now, his administration threatens to expose us as we are – a useless, corrupt parasites! We cannot allow this to happen!” And so he did… ” A typical stream of tags followed: #securetheborder #GOP #RINO #GOP #deepstate #McCain #traitor #ISIS #democraps #refugees #Soros #illegals #criminalalien #invasion #immigration #liberalagenda #borderpatrol #closetheborder #illegalcrime #migrantcrisis #TrumpTrain #DrainTheSwamp #MAGA.

The post received 549 Likes and  20 Comments before it was removed, possibly in August. The account had racked up over 4,000 followers and posted around 265 photos by the time it was closed, according to cached web pages.

As of March, an apparently earlier account, @secured_borders, had 48,805 followers, 3,319 posts, and over 146,000 impressions. According to analytics firm Keyhole, it ranked in a top 10 list of Instagram accounts promoting the hashtag #buildthewall.

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The Facebook pages were, according to Facebook, created and operated by a St. Petersburg group called the Internet Research Agency, which is “likely” financed by “a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence,” U.S. intelligence agencies have said.

While Facebook has only publicly identified six Russia-linked pages, it says it has found and shuttered a total of 470 similar pages on its platform, and warned that there may be many more. It has given the ads it’s found to investigators, but there are no plans to release them to the public. Twitter shuttered related accounts on its platform. Google, Reddit, Snap, and others are examining their data for evidence of Russia-bought ads.

Various outlets have already identified some of the Facebook and Twitter posts, thanks to images cached on Google and elsewhere. But data on the Russia-backed Facebook ads and posts gathered this week by researcher Jonathan Albright, the director of Research at Columbia University’s Tow Center, provides a broader wealth of details that can be used to find similar content that was formerly hosted on Instagram and hasn’t been previously connected with Russia’s campaign.

While the Instagram accounts haven’t yet been publicly identified by Facebook as part of the Russian-backed effort, the New York Times reported last week that “the disinformation campaign spread well beyond Facebook to sites like Reddit, Instagram, 4chan, and Imgur.” Last month, the Daily Beast also found an Instagram group linked to the Muslim America Facebook page.

A representative for Sen. Mark Warner, co-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee examining Russian interference, said in an email that Instagram ads were “not something he’s publicly addressed,” but noted that Instagram is “owned by Facebook.” Sen. Richard Burr, the other committee co-chair, did not respond to a request for comment.

Here’s a sample of what Fast Company has found:

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“Secured Borders,” a Russia-linked Facebook group that sought to rile up anti-immigrant sentiment and organize real-life rallies, used the same logo and language as the Instagram account @secured_borders, which appeared to be active until last month.

Like the John McCain post, Secured Borders’ content tends toward more inflammatory messages apparently aimed at Trump supporters. One message calls out lawmakers like Nancy Pelosi and Paul Ryan for not supporting stronger immigration laws. “Let’s bring ISIS to America and call them all refugee’s [sic],” says one post, with an image of a laughing Barack Obama. “Like if you agree,” a number of the posts urge.

This post was published on Instagram on January 19, 2017:

Cached Instagram post [via me.me]
This Facebook post was published on January 18, 2017, a day before the same text appeared on the corresponding Instagram page.

[Facebook post metadata via Crowdtangle / Jonathan Albright]
In various posts, each of the three Instagram accounts used text that had been posted on corresponding Facebook pages the previous day. Images from Facebook and Instagram servers are no longer online, but cached images of some of the Instagram posts remain elsewhere on the web.

On January 22, 2017, two days after Trump’s inauguration, an Instagram post on the Secured Borders account attacked anti-Trump protesters:

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[Cached Instagram post via me.me].
A post sent the previous day on Facebook used the same language.

[Facebook post metadata via Crowdtangle / Jonathan Albright]
Another Instagram post describing the “national security risk” of “refugees from terrorist states” published on January 27, 2017 received around 30 likes, according to cached data:

An Instagram post about the first family published on February 13, 2017, received over 4,000 likes:

One of the most popular messages last year on another Russia-linked Facebook page, LGBT United, didn’t mention the presidential election or even politics, at least not explicitly. It looked more like a garish motivational poster: “You know who you are, not society,” cartoon letters said against a rainbow backdrop.

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One of the most popular posts shared by the LGBT United Facebook group was also shared by the Instagram user rainbow_nation_US.

On Facebook, the post racked up over 99,000 likes, shares, and comments before the social media giant took the post down last month. Since Facebook has suspended the Facebook account and not publicly released any of the Russian-linked ads it says its found, the “you know who you are” post is no longer available on the public web.

A similar image, however, originally posted on Instagram by a user named rainbow_nation_us, lingers on websites that aggregate memes. With language mirroring that of the Facebook group, the account had racked up 127,100 followers and 2,553 posts by the time of its suspension, according to cached data on Google.

Other posts on the “rainbow_nation_US” Instagram account are mostly innocuous-seeming messages and memes that echo postings made by the LGBT United group on Facebook.

Another Russia-linked Facebook page called “Blacktivists” and designed to appear that it was affiliated with Black Lives Matter activists in the U.S., stoked racial tensions during and after the campaign, using Facebook, Twitter, and, it appears, Instagram posts.

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The _blacktivistt_ Instagram account had at least 11,900 followers and 1,263 posts when it was suspended, according to Google’s cached data.

Using Facebook’s advertising tools, Russian operatives not only targeted users by demographics, geography, gender, and interests, but also used a Facebook feature called Custom Audiences to send specific messages to voters based on separate data, like lists of people who had visited other websites, people familiar with Facebook’s investigation told the Washington Post.

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Instagram offers similar advertising tools, and was one of the many internet platforms campaigns used to reach voters with targeted messages last year. The 2016 campaigns bought an estimated $1.4 billion in ads from Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, Snapchat, and other platforms, a staggering surge of 789% from 2012.

The ads that Facebook has identified so far had been seen by about 10 million people, with 44% of the ads seen before the 2016 election and the rest after, the company wrote in its blog post. The post also described some of the ways the mega-network intends to protect its users from manipulation.

Sen. Warner, who said on Wednesday that the internet giants appeared to be taking the threat seriously, also urged more transparency around the Russia-backed posts.

“At the end of the day, it’s important the public see these ads,” he said. The following day, he took to Twitter to repeat the idea, adding, “Retweet if you agree.”

About the author

Alex is a contributing editor at Fast Company, the founding editor and editor at large of Motherboard at Vice, and a freelance writer and producer with a focus on the intersections of science, technology, media, politics, and culture.

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