Russia’s campaign to sway American public opinion on social media during the 2016 campaign was more calculated, far-reaching and sophisticated than previously known, according to a study released Wednesday.
U.S. cybersecurity firm Symantec says the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm with links to the Kremlin, carried out “a highly professional campaign” that was “incredibly successful at pushing out and amplifying its messages.”
“While this propaganda campaign has often been referred to as the work of trolls, the release of the dataset makes it obvious that it was far more than that,” the firm wrote. “It was planned months in advance and the operators had the resources to create and manage a vast disinformation network.”
Researchers reviewed almost 4,000 accounts and 10 million tweets that Twitter released last year amid scrutiny of Moscow’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential race.
The study concluded that the Internet Research Agency conducted a carefully calculated operation that sought to inflame tensions on both sides of the ideological divide, rather than the previous assumptions that its posts were targeting just one side of the political spectrum.
“Once the data was made public, it quickly became obvious that in order to achieve its goal, the campaign directed propaganda at both sides of the liberal/conservative political divide in the U.S., in particular the more disaffected elements of both camps,” Symantec wrote. “The main objective of the campaign instead appeared to be sowing discord by attempting to inflame opinions on both sides.”
In some cases, accounts were set up months in advance before they were used — long before the 2016 election. There was an average of 177 days between the creation of an account and its first tweet, Symantec said.
The firm also found that while the majority of the accounts were automated, the Internet Research Agency manually intervened at times to post original content or tweak the wording of reposted content. Symantec said the approach appeared to be an attempt to make the posts look more authentic.
“Fake news accounts were set up to monitor blog activity and automatically push new blog posts to Twitter. Auxiliary accounts were configured to retweet content pushed out by the main accounts,” the firm said.
The company warned that there is a risk such an operation could be repeated in future election cycles.
“The sheer scale and impact of this propaganda campaign is obviously of deep concern to voters in all countries, who may fear a repeat of what happened in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election in 2016,” Symantec wrote. “A growing awareness of the disinformation campaigns may help blunt their impact in future.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller, who outlined the Internet Research Agency’s activities in his report, brought charges last year against the troll farm and a dozen Russian nationals for interfering with the 2016 U.S. elections.