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It’s not over: Russia’s divisive Instagram memes are still racking up likes

The remnants of a Russian propaganda campaign linger on Facebook’s photo platform, and researchers say they still lack important data.

It’s not over: Russia’s divisive Instagram memes are still racking up likes
[Photos: Markus Spiske/rawpixel; Tumisu/Pixabay]

It’s even worse than you think. One of the biggest revelations in Monday’s bombshell reports on Russia’s social media propaganda campaign was that Instagram played a much bigger role than previously known—resulting in 187 million engagements versus 76.5 million engagements on Facebook—at a scale far larger than parent company Facebook has acknowledged. And though the Russian Instagram accounts have since been deleted, they actually have had a greater impact than the new batch of Facebook data suggests: A search of Instagram reveals that at least hundreds of Internet Research Agency (IRA)-linked posts are still alive across the platform through legitimate U.S.-owned Instagram accounts, where they have racked up thousands of likes.

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Incendiary Instagram posts originally distributed by Russia’s Internet Research Agency are still alive on U.S.-based accounts, like this one, which currently has over 10,000 likes.

Sen. Mark Warner, the Democrat Vice Chair of the Senate committee that commissioned the reports, told Fast Company that the lingering posts were a sign that more investigation is needed. “This is exactly why we thought it was important to release this information to the public—so that we can continue to identify what’s out there, and uncover additional IRA accounts that are still operational,” he said.

While most of the news coverage focused on influence campaigns on Facebook, Instagram was “perhaps the most effective platform” for the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency in its efforts to sow discord and promote President Donald Trump’s campaign, and remains “a key battleground,” noted one of the new reports, by cybersecurity company New Knowledge, Columbia University, and software research and development firm Canfield Research.

“On Instagram, IRA activities did not cease after the 2016 election but became substantially more vigorous” among a broader ecosystem of misinformation, according to the other report, compiled by Oxford University’s Center for Computational Propaganda and the network analysis company Graphika.

Still, the New Knowledge researchers write, the popular photo-sharing app was used at a scale that Facebook executives “appeared to have avoided mentioning in congressional testimony.” Even now, they say, data that could help measure the campaigns’ impact remains out of reach to the public.

Facebook’s slow acknowledgment

The company first disclosed the presence of IRA-linked Instagram accounts in early October 2017, shortly after I asked a Facebook spokesperson about a swath of suspicious and defunct Instagram accounts. The accounts had been suspended earlier that year, but I had found their remnants—as well as surviving “regrams” by legitimate users—scattered across the web on meme archival sites. Jonathan Albright, director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and a coauthor of the New Knowledge report, had first pointed me to bits and pieces of data he had excavated using a briefly-open loophole in Facebook’s CrowdTangle tool.

Albright was struck by the as-yet-unacknowledged scale of the Instagram campaign, as well as the potential impact of the platform. “For sowing division and finding wedge issues, Instagram is an ideal visual meme broadcast factory,” he said.

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That afternoon, the company updated a blog post with a single mention of Instagram: “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.

But this brief mention vastly understated the true size of the Instagram campaign, and spending on ads hardly represented the scope of the Russian effort. The ad engagements “were a minor factor in a much broader, organically driven influence operation,” said the New Knowledge report. Still, the researchers note, the $100,000 figure “has stuck among people who remain skeptical of the IRA operation’s significance.” (A U.S. Justice Department indictment this year estimated that by September 2016, the IRA had a monthly budget of more than $1.25 million to carry out its campaigns.)

The Russians’ preferred platform

With access to extensive amounts of data provided by Facebook, the researchers paint a fuller picture of Instagram’s role: Beginning in 2015, accounts created by the IRA spread 116,205 Instagram posts, almost double the number of Facebook posts they created, 61,483. The Instagram posts resulted in 187 million engagements (including 4 million comments) across 20 million users, versus 76.5 million engagements on Facebook across 126 million people.

By comparison, on Twitter, where IRA activities in the US first began in 2013, 1.4 million people engaged with its tweets, leading to nearly 73 million engagements.

On Instagram, the New Knowledge researchers note, some of the IRA’s accounts garnered sizable followings. Roughly 40% of its accounts achieved over 10,000 followers—what marketers call “micro-influencers,” with 12 accounts racking up over 100,000 followers—with “influencer” status. The Instagram account @blackstagram_, aimed at black voters, was perhaps the IRA’s most successful account, regularly getting upwards of 10,000 likes on its posts by 2017.

Posts per week on social networks between 2016 and 2018, with Facebook in blue, Twitter in green, and Instagram in red. [Chart: New Knowledge]
In a statement, Facebook said that it continues to cooperate with officials investigating the IRA’s activity around the 2016 election, and that it has “made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy.” The New Knowledge researchers also commend Facebook for having “undergone a significant transformation in how it discusses influence operations on the platform” over the past two years.

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Still, Facebook has still not released data about how users engaged with Instagram: The data the researchers were given did not include any comments, details about videos, or the view duration for posts. And Facebook didn’t provide the researchers with the sort of data it offers advertisers: “They didn’t include any conversion pathway data to elucidate how individuals came to follow the accounts, eliminating another key path to gauge impact.”

One Instagram post sent in the summer of 2017 took aim at the now-late Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who was a frequent critic of President Trump.

Instagram may have been more engaging a platform than Facebook, the researchers posit—echoing the sentiment of many millennials—and more conducive to influence campaigns. “Additionally, it is worth investigating whether Instagram users were substantially more likely to engage with the content to better understand how this material influenced and is likely to influence in the future,” they write.

Sowing division and suppressing votes

Ahead of election day, Instagram was used to push out thousands of messages, many of which were intended to sow division across the political spectrum and suppress the black vote. (Many of the posts have been collected in online archives.) In some cases, the memes sought to misdirect black voters, for instance by pushing vote-by-text messages, or urged them to vote for a third-party candidate or stay home altogether.

A since-deleted post from the IRA’s Blacktivist Instagram account

Similar “voter discouragement” tactics have been ascribed to the Trump campaign, which, with the help of disgraced data firm Cambridge Analytica, used an unprecedented amount of Facebook ads to target voters in swing states like Florida. Facebook has said that it has seen no evidence of coordinated activity between the IRA-backed efforts and the Trump campaign.

A since-deleted post sent in 2017 by the IRA’s Blacktivist Instagram account

Black voters were especially singled out, according to the new reports. “The 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 researchers write. The IRA’s “degree of integration into authentic black community media was not replicated in the otherwise right-leaning or otherwise left-leaning content.”

Instagram propaganda ramped up after the election

As the Facebook platform faced more scrutiny after the election, the IRA leaned harder on Instagram. There was a 238% spike in Instagram activity in the six-month period following the election, according to the Oxford-Graphika report.

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An IRA post linking George Soros with anti-Trump protests still circulates on Instagram.

Among liberals, the IRA pushed an array of messages on Instagram that attacked the Electoral College and pushed back against early calls for impeachment. Among Trump supporters, the group pushed the false claim that the president would have won the popular vote if it weren’t for massive voter fraud by undocumented immigrants.

Russian memes are still alive and spreading

While the known IRA Instagram accounts have been purged, along with their associates on other platforms, many copies of their original posts remain. As Fast Company previously reported last year, dozens of incendiary Instagram posts from IRA accounts can still be found on “authentic” conservative political accounts, where they have racked up tens of thousands of likes.

One IRA-distributed meme still alive on Instagram, where it’s amassed over 6,000 likes.

For instance, one of many memes originally spread by the IRA account @secured_borders and still available elsewhere on Instagram rails against sanctuary cities and “illegal aliens,” with talk of suing the politicians who support the idea.

A deleted post from the IRA’s Secured Borders Instagram reposted by another user last year

The surviving posts suggest that Facebook’s estimates of users who have seen Russian memes remain low. While Facebook said more than 20 million people likely saw messages spread by the IRA on Instagram, it is “possible that the 20 million is not accounting for impact from regrams, which may be difficult to track because Instagram does not have a native sharing feature,” the New Knowledge researchers wrote.

Renée DiResta, an expert in misinformation and one of the authors of the New Knowledge report, said the many lingering reposts, both on Instagram and other platforms, were a sign of how much the Russian content resonated with users.

“There are tons of these ‘zombie’ IRA posts around, and I see them pop up regularly on “citizen media” and other small journalism properties serving the targeted groups,” she said. “Some of these memes were created by others and rebranded as IRA, so the message was not a Russian creation, they simply amplified it. It’s hard to know if the people sharing them know the provenance.”

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An Islamophobic meme posted last year by a high-follower American Instagram account originated with the Internet Research Agency’s @mericanfury account

Facebook acknowledges that its takedowns of IRA actors in 2017 did not extend to removing posts from authentic, real people. When the company removes accounts or Pages for coordinated inauthentic behavior, it acts based on the behavior of the accounts, not the content, a spokesperson said. Since much of the IRA’s memes had been assembled or recycled from other sources, it can also be challenging for platforms to distinguish between a piece of propaganda and an “authentic” piece of content.

What’s next: Critical data–and defenses–remain missing

The researchers want more data. “Further investigation of subscription and engagement pathways is needed,” the researchers say, “and only the platforms currently have that data. Understanding the reactions of targeted Americans, and attempting to gauge the impact that the repeated exposure to this propaganda had, is also a key area for ongoing investigation.”

There should be more information sharing between government and social networks, a recommendation P.W. Singer also made when we spoke last month. “The United States government has departments with decades of experience managing foreign propaganda and espionage,” write the New Knowledge researchers. “But because these influence operations are happening on private social platforms, there has been minimal information sharing. Robust collaboration between government agencies, platforms, and private companies is key to combatting this threat.”

Instagram and Facebook posts from two IRA accounts, Army of Jesus and LGBT United.

The U.S.’s dedication to freedom of speech and rules of engagement, however, makes it hard to fight propaganda by authoritarian governments. “It is precisely our commitment to democratic principles that puts us at an asymmetric disadvantage against an adversary who enthusiastically engages in censorship, manipulation, and suppression internally,” the report said.


Related: War is memes. “Don’t be a victim like the Americans”


Despite efforts by the social media companies and governments, the threat of information warfare on our social networks is only evolving, the researchers write. “We’ll see increased human-exploitation tradecraft and narrative laundering. We should certainly expect to see recruitment, manipulation, and influence attempts targeting the 2020 election, including the inauthentic amplification of otherwise legitimate American narratives, as well as a focus on smaller/secondary platforms and peer-to-peer messaging services.”

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Lawmakers, who have already released reports on election security and the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference, are expected to unveil their own reports on social media interference and whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) told The Hill last week that he is “fairly confident” the probe will wrap up in the spring. If the new data–and the apparent lack of data–is any indication, there’s a lot more to uncover.

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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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