For Russian misinformation-mongers, 2017 was the year of Instagram. As Facebook and Twitter cracked down on foreign influence campaigns amid media scrutiny, the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) found unprecedented success in shifting its disinformation efforts to the photo-sharing app, according to a new report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee. On Instagram, the IRA waged memetic warfare against millions of users by creating a robust and sophisticated network of accounts related to key social justice and political issues. These profiles weren’t crude or poorly managed but, rather, part of a well-oiled influence machine designed to weaponize the social clout wielded by power users on Instagram.
“Instagram was perhaps the most effective platform for the Internet Research Agency,” concludes the report, written by cybersecurity firm New Knowledge. The IRA created just 133 Instagram accounts. But a dozen of these attracted more than 100,000 followers, commonly viewed as a threshold to mark an account an “influencer;” approximately 50 surpassed the “micro-influencer” milestone of 10,000 followers. Like many American influencers, the IRA monetized its digital popularity by pushing custom-made merchandise—giving it access to the purchasers’ personally identifying information, and promoting partnerships with brands.
On Instagram, IRA accounts mocked the idea of IRA accounts on Instagram. In the wake of the 2016 election, over 70 posts on Facebook and Instagram targeting right-wing audiences downplayed the existence of Russian interference.
Starting in 2015, the period analyzed by the report, IRA-controlled accounts distributed 116,205 Instagram posts, nearly twice as many as the 61,483 posts on Facebook, which until now have garnered far more attention. The Instagram posts received more than 183 million likes and 4 million comments, generating significantly more interactions from users than comparable Russian operations on Facebook, which collectively received about 76 million engagements. The report also suggests that Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, downplayed the outsized role of the photo sharing platform in Russian efforts to sow division. Instagram’s role was “something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in Congressional testimony,” the report says.
These were the 10 most popular IRA accounts on Instagram:
Though the IRA’s 133 Instagram accounts were largely created in early to mid 2015—well before most of the group’s Facebook profiles—the platform wasn’t a primary focus for Russian operatives until 2017. As media attention turned to Facebook and Twitter, the report says, the IRA ramped up its presence on Instagram, with post totals more than doubling from roughly 2,600 posts a month in 2016 to almost 6,000 in 2017.
The bulk of the IRA’s disinformation efforts on Instagram served to reinforce cultural divisions by embedding users in a particular in-group, often tied to their race, political beliefs, or gender. The top 10 most popular accounts each targeted a particular audience and collectively garnered over 120 million engagements.
The majority of the IRA’s most successful accounts targeted the black community, and black cultural issues. The accounts created their own interlinked media ecosystem, across more than a dozen different platforms. One of the smaller Instagram accounts, @blackmattersus, which had nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram and garnered nearly 2 million engagements, also cross-promoted its content on Twitter and Facebook, published nearly 100 videos on YouTube, created two Facebook events and launched related ads on the platform, and ran both a Soundcloud and Tumblr by the name of SKWAD55. Russian operatives used the Black Matters network to both sow division and build community, frequently posting job listings for real Americans to help create content for the website. The Black Matters accounts interacted with and promoted content from the IRA’s dozens of other similar networks of accounts in the black media scene. Black Matters content was also shared by high-profile influencers and groups unassociated with the IRA, such as, Color of Change, Unapologetically Black, and YourAnonNews.
“An individual who followed or liked one of the Black-community-targeted IRA Pages would have been exposed to content from dozens more, as well as carefully curated authentic Black media content that was ideologically or thematically aligned with the Internet Research Agency messaging,” the report reads.
This intricate network of linked content across a variety of platforms allowed the IRA to grow the audiences of multiple accounts simultaneously by drawing upon the cross-promotional tools built into platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. The integrated nature of the network also served to boost the accounts’ legitimacy among real black Americans.
Once these networks of accounts gained critical mass, they were used to promote narratives that exacerbated tensions between groups and hijack the conversation among target audiences by presenting potential topics of discussion or opinions from a trusted source. One particularly potent example of this tactic identified in the report centers around a real-life human interest story. The IRA heavily promoted the story of an 11-year-old black boy who made national news after inventing a device to prevent hot car deaths. IRA-run Instagram accounts and Facebook pages reframed the story to reinforce racial in-groups: “White people invent tools for killing, this Black child is inventing a tool for saving lives,” read one post. “these are stories of Black children the media don’t want you to see,” read another. Black Matters created an article about the subject on its website, which it claimed had well over 100,000 subscribers.
These ecosystems of disinformation also served to promote merchandise, including t-shirts with polarizing or inflammatory statements “designed to spark controversy in the real world,” LGBT-positive sex toys, and patriotic wall art. Much like actual influencers, IRA accounts on Instagram partnered with brands to offer promotions for their products without adequately disclosing their financial relationships. One promo post by IRA account @black4black offered followers a “good discount” from a skincare company in exchange for sharing three of either their posts or posts by Black Matters.
The report notes that while there is no data available regarding the revenue the IRA received from these endeavors, there are two unsettling reasons for the Russians to hawk merch: transaction data and ad targeting. Transactions could have given the IRA access to a wealth of personal data about the purchaser, including their name, address, email, and phone number, and perhaps even payment details—all of which could have been used to further target divisive ads and more IRA content in the future.
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