Two reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee show Russian-based actors used every major social network to target Black voters and to spread pro-Trump propaganda during and after the 2016 presidential election.

The first report, authored by Texas-based tech firm New Knowledge, claims the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) targeted Black voters more than any other demographic, according to The New York Times. It also found the IRA used Instagram to sway public opinion — especially Black public opinion — far more extensively than had previously been known.

The IRA is a company comprised of cyber specialists owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle who was indicted for interfering with the 2016 election by special counsel Robert Mueller.

“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 report reads.

The IRA used a variety of methods to spread its message, both in the real world and in cyberspace. It first created fake pro-Black accounts on several sites including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest and Vine. It also bought ads on these platforms to drive traffic to its pages targeting people who searched for things like Black history, the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X.

Once these pages amassed thousands, or even millions, of fans, they took on a life of their own, with users organizing real-world events (unbeknownst to them, serving the ends of Russian agents).

Blavity reported on one of these pages, Blacktivist, earlier this year. The Blacktivist Facebook page had over 350,000 likes before it was shut down by content moderators and served as a platform for organizing rallies, including a march for Freddie Gray and a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party.

The report found other groups “were the focus of one or two Facebook Pages or Instagram accounts,” but “the Black community was targeted extensively with dozens.”

To put this in perspective, the IRA created 81 pages on Facebook. Thirty of them (almost 40 percent) were aimed at Black users. Those pages boasted 1.2 million followers between them. The Facebook pages targeting Black users were nothing compared to the IRA's Instagram work. The actors at the agency only had 76.5 million engagements on Facebook, while Instagram had a whopping 187 million.

The report’s authors believe the IRA used the country’s history of inequality and its current racial tensions to its advantage.

“Very real racial tensions and feelings of alienation exist in America, and have for decades,” researcher Renee DiResta said. “The IRA didn’t create them. It exploits them.”

The Washington Post reports that when not sowing discord, the IRA created content to energize right-wing voters. The Post received advanced access to the second report, compiled by Oxford University, which found the Russians put in a lot of effort to ensure Trump’s victory.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” the report notes. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

Part of the agency's pro-Trump push involved creating anti-Clinton propaganda. Democratic voters were urged to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein or to refuse to vote at all. It is unclear how the IRA’s efforts affected turnout, but it’s worth noting Black voting rates dipped for the first time in 20 years during the 2016 election.

According to both reports, Russia's efforts to influence U.S. politics didn't end in 2016 and continue to this day with the IRA reportedly pivoting even more toward Instagram. Double-tap with caution. 

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