How Russian Trolls Used Meme Warfare to Divide America - 2018-12-17
There's a meme on Instagram, circulated by a group called "Born Liberal." A fist holds a cluster of strings, reaching down into people with television sets for heads. The text declares: "The People Believe What the Media Tells Them They Believe: George Orwell." The quote is surely false, but it's also perfect in a way. "Born Liberal" was a creation of the Internet Research Agency, the Russian propaganda wing that might as well be part of Oceania. In other words, we live in a time when American democratic debate is being influenced by liars spreading memes about our inability to understand the truth.
This particular meme is one of many revealed in a new report released on Monday, commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee and written by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity firm whose director of research, Renee DiResta, is a WIRED contributor. This report, along with a second one written by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University and Graphik, offers the most extensive look at the IRA's attempts to divide Americans, suppress the vote, and boost then-candidate Donald Trump before and after the 2016 presidential election. The report sheds new light on the ways the IRA trolls targeted African Americans and the outsized role Instagram played in their work. It also calls into question statements tech executives have made under oath to Congress in the past 18 months.
The report by New Knowledge is based on a review of 10.4 million tweets, 1,100 YouTube videos, 116,000 Instagram posts, and 61,500 unique Facebook posts published from 2015 through 2017. This is not a complete data set of Russian influence operations, but it's still the largest such analysis to take place outside of the companies themselves. And it shows that the Russians weren't just running a bland content farm, churning out propaganda in broken English. The operation was deeply sophisticated, and at times, downright funny. As the report's authors note: "The IRA was fluent in American trolling culture."