A series of developments on Wednesday shed new light on the lengths Russia went to exploit social media, and Facebook in particular, to spread disinformation and generate political division among the American public.
Facebook recently came under the microscope after it emerged earlier this month that fake accounts linked to Russian entities used the platform to spread fake news and bought $100,000 worth of inflammatory ads leading up to the 2016 election.
The company still does not know the extent of Russia’s purchases or whether these unidentified ad buys remain on the site. Facebook has since confirmed that Russia-linked groups did more than buy ads and post memes — they tried to organize anti-immigrant, anti-Clinton rallies in Texas and Idaho.
Wednesday’s developments indicate that Kremlin-backed entities went even further than what was previously reported.
‘Russia knows no ends and no limits’
In one instance, The Daily Beast learned, operatives supported by the Russian government created a Facebook group impersonating a California-based Muslim organization, called United Muslims of America, to sow anti-US sentiment among American Muslims by targeting politicians across the spectrum.
Pro-Kremlin trolls used the group to push fabricated stories, like one claiming Hillary Clinton admitted that the US “created, funded and armed” Al-Qaeda and ISIS — which she did not and the US did not — and that John McCain was the true founder of ISIS — which he was not. Both Clinton and McCain are frequent and vocal critics of Russia and its President Vladimir Putin.
In addition to spreading disinformation about Democratic and Republican politicians, the group also used Twitter and Instagram to spread divisive memes and messages.
Though Russia’s interference in the US election was aimed primarily toward helping Donald Trump clinch the presidency, this development indicates that “Russia knows no ends and no limits to which groups they would masquerade as to carry out their objectives,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast.
Indeed, though Russia backed Trump’s candidacy during the election, the report noted that the fake Facebook group’s biggest swell in activity came after the president ordered a missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airfield in April. Trump made the decision after a deadly chemical attack, allegedly carried out by Syrian President Bashar Assad, killed scores of civilians in a northwest province of the country.
Russia is a staunch ally of Assad and repeatedly warned the US against taking harsh action following the chemical attack. Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said that the US’ missile strike constituted “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.”
On April 9, three days after the strike, the fake UMA Facebook account posted a meme signaling its opposition to the move, according to the report. The $93 million that the strike cost, the social-media posting said, “could have founded [sic] Meals on Wheels until 2029.” The group posted more than a dozen memes afterward — both on Facebook and on Instagram — opposing US intervention in Syria.
The real United Muslims of America organization, Swalwell said, “seek[s] harmony between the US and the Muslim world.”
“Many of these individuals I have heard first-hand denounce terrorist attacks across the world, including those carried out by Muslims,” Swalwell said. “To see their name hijacked by the Russians, if true, and carrying out Russian goals of undermining the U.S. is disturbing and not who they are.”
The fake UMA group organized several real-life events, according to The Daily Beast, though it’s unclear if it successfully drew an audience. Fifty-nine people were marked as having attended one event in September 2016, while 20 were marked as having attended another in June this year, though the report said there’s no evidence that anyone showed up.
Consistent with the overall goal of creating discord
On Wednesday evening, CNN followed up with a separate report with details about a Facebook ad Russia bought during last year’s election which was centered around the Black Lives Matter movement and targeted specifically towards the cities of Ferguson and Baltimore.
The ad was bought by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll factory based in St. Petersburg.
Both cities made headlines in 2014 and 2015, respectively, when two young, unarmed black men were killed following encounters with law enforcement in what critics said was an example of frequent police brutality toward predominantly African-American communities.
Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 after Brown allegedly robbed a convenience store.
Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old from Baltimore, was arrested in April 2015 and died a week later from injuries that were sustained when he was being transported in a police vehicle.
The incidents sparked massive nationwide protests and calls from Black Lives Matter, as well as other civil-rights groups, for law enforcement to be held accountable for their actions.
The Russian-backed Facebook ad appeared in late 2015 or early 2016, sources told CNN, and though it was meant to appear supportive of Black Lives Matter, it may also have conveyed the group as threatening to some residents of those cities.
“This is consistent with the overall goal of creating discord inside the body politic here in the United States, and really across the West,” Steve Hall, the former CIA officer and CNN National Security Analyst, told the cable network. “It shows the level of sophistication of their targeting. They are able to sow discord in a very granular nature, target certain communities and link them up with certain issues,” he said.
Cyberwarfare as a way to support informational goals
The Internet Research Agency, the Russian company that bought the ad, is known for its activities in the informational space.
From his research on the company last year, journalist Adrian Chen discovered that Russian internet trolls — paid by the Kremlin to spread false information on the internet — were behind a number of “highly coordinated campaigns” to deceive the American public.
It’s a brand of information warfare, known as “dezinformatsiya,” that has been used by the Russians since at least the Cold War. The disinformation campaigns are only one “active measure” tool used by Russian intelligence to “sow discord among,” and within, allies perceived hostile to Russia.
From his interviews with former trolls employed by Russia, Chen gathered that the point of their jobs “was to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person.”
Indeed, “the Russians generally look at cyberwarfare as a way to support informational goals, like shaping an election,” Paulo Shakarian, the CEO of CYR3CON, a cybersecurity threat intelligence firm, told Business Insider in July. The belief is rooted primarily in Putin’s long-held view that cyberwar is a way to influence the informational battlefield.
Russia’s objectives were also likely bolstered — intentionally or not — by Trump himself.
“Part of the reasons active measures have worked in the US election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents,” former FBI special agent Clint Watts told the Senate Intelligence Committee in May, pointing to Trump’s citations of fake-news stories pushed out by Russian-linked entities last year.
“[Trump] denies the intel from the United States about Russia, and he claimed the election could be rigged — that was the number one claim pushed by RT, Sputnik News, all the way up until the election,” Watts said. “Part of the reasons Russian active measures work is because they parrot the same lines.”
Facebook, for its part, appears to have been slow to act in the wake of Russia’s actions.
Former President Barack Obama tried to warn the platform’s CEO and co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, about the threat of fake news and its effect on the 2016 election less than two weeks after Trump won the presidency,The Washington Post reported on Sunday.
Nine days before Obama warned him about the effect fake news had on the November result and the problem it would pose in future elections, Zuckerberg struck down the notion as a “crazy idea” that “surely had no impact” on the end result.
Following the president’s warning, Zuckerberg acknowledged the problem but said fake news wasn’t widespread on Facebook, according to The Post. He added at the time that there was no easy solution to the issue, according to those familiar with the matter.