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Russia’s social media meddling in the United States was just the tip of the iceberg

From Brexit to Barcelona to bloodshed in South Sudan, the perils of fake social media accounts spread far beyond American borders.

So much for the time when social media was supposed to bring us all together. (CREDIT: AP/ELISE AMENDOLA)
So much for the time when social media was supposed to bring us all together. (CREDIT: AP/ELISE AMENDOLA)

Following last month’s blistering congressional hearings, where Republican and Democratic officials alike laid into higher-ups at Facebook and Twitter, executives from the social media giants likely thought the worst was behind them.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Over the past week, a series of revelations have illustrated how social media manipulation extends beyond Russia’s meddling in American elections. Teams of researchers, alongside officials from London and Madrid, have identified fraudulent accounts — many of which were Russian — targeting the Brexit and Catalonian secession votes. A dispiriting report from Freedom House has also highlighted how governments from Manila and Minsk to China and Caracas can turn social media manipulation on domestic populations, with the aim of hobbling liberal democracies and expanding authoritarians’ reach.

Bots and Brexit

Given the staggering findings regarding fraudulent Russian accounts and the 2016 U.S. election — which highlighted the fact that nearly 150 million Facebook and Instagram users were exposed to fraudulent Russian material — there’s little reason to think that these fake accounts, mainly run out of St. Petersburg, targeted Washington alone.

“The main conclusion is that bots were used on purpose and had influence.”

A series of new papers and pronouncements out of the U.K. over the past month have shone new light on how Russian Facebook and Twitter accounts tilted last year’s Brexit election in particular, the outcome of which fulfilled one of Moscow’s long-standing geopolitical aims.

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On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May blasted Moscow over the findings. “We know what you are doing,” May said. “And you will not succeed.”

A group of researchers with the University of Edinburgh has pored over more than 400 fraudulent Twitter accounts identified, via congressional investigations, as Russian. These accounts all aimed to sway the Brexit vote in support of the “leave” camp, which favored cutting the U.K. off from the European Union.

The researchers found that, as they did during the U.S. election, the accounts often pumped out anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant material, some of which was successful enough to make it into mainstream publications, lighting up far-right social media accounts on both sides of the Atlantic. Some also posed as Americans interested in the Brexit vote, with one even portraying itself as a U.S. Navy veteran.

On Wednesday, though, the number of questionable accounts that had targeted the Brexit vote skyrocketed. A pair of researchers from Wales’ Swansea University, Oleksandr Talavera and Tho Pham, revealed that more than 150,000 Russian-language accounts had inundated followers with pro-Brexit material in the days leading up to the vote. All of the posts on the accounts were written in English and slammed the European Union.

According to The Times, Russian Twitter accounts posted some 45,000 messages about Brexit in the 48 hours during last year’s referendum, with nearly 40,000 coming the day of the vote. Said Pham, “The main conclusion is that bots were used on purpose and had influence.”

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The numbers mirror preliminary findings, including those from researchers at City University, London, who discovered over 13,000 likely bot accounts pushing largely pro-Brexit messages — accounts that promptly disappeared after the vote.

MP Damian Collins announced last week that officials from Facebook and Twitter would be facing oral hearings on the topic soon.

“Any interference by foreign actors in the Democratic process of the United Kingdom is clearly a serious matter,” Collins wrote in a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on November 3.

Letter from British MP Damian Collins, chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (screengrab).
Letter from British MP Damian Collins, chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee, to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey (screengrab).

Thus far, Brexit-related findings have remained focused on Twitter, but there are indications that additional findings from Facebook may be forthcoming. A Facebook spokesperson issued a statement to BuzzFeed on Monday in which they “appear[ed] to admit for the first time that some Russia-linked accounts may have used the platform to interfere in the EU referendum”, the outlet wrote. At least one Russian account, which pushed Texas secession, had pointed to Brexit as reason to support Texas separatism.

The "Heart of Texas" Facebook page, a Russian account posing as Texans, pointed to Brexit as inspiration for Texas secession. (SOURCE: FACEBOOK)
The "Heart of Texas" Facebook page, a Russian account posing as Texans, pointed to Brexit as inspiration for Texas secession. (SOURCE: FACEBOOK)

“To date, we have not observed that the known, coordinated clusters in Russia engaged in significant coordination of ad buys or political misinformation targeting the Brexit vote,” the spokesperson wrote. As BuzzFeed noted, that statement contradicted earlier comments in which Facebook executives had claimed there was “no evidence that Russia interfered in Brexit.”

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Of course, given that Facebook has been remarkably non-transparent about Russia’s meddling on its platform — and that it’s raised its estimates of users exposed to such propaganda from 10 million to nearly 150 million — there’s little reason to take the company’s claims at face value. Nor is there any reason to think fraudulent Russian accounts avoided using the largest social media platform on the planet to sway one of that most historic votes the West has seen in years.

Conflict and Catalonia

Where it’s taken nearly 18 months to finally glean information on Russian interference in the Brexit vote, it’s taken only a few weeks to pull back the curtain on fake social media accounts and the recent referendum out of Catalonia.

No national government has yet recognized the validity of Catalonia’s recent referendum, and the region is no closer to independence than before. But researchers, journalists, and Spanish politicos have begun coloring in details of how fake Facebook and Twitter accounts tried to muddy the vote toward a break from Spain — as well as how Russia-linked actors continue pushing for Catalan secession today.

“The most surprising thing…has been the discovery of an entire army of zombie accounts…dedicated to sharing content generated by RT and Sputnik.”

For instance, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, one of the most outspoken opponents of Catalonian secession, referred this week to an “avalanche” of foreign bots pushing misinformation on the referendum. (One fake story claimed that the Balearic Islands backed Catalonian independence.) Rajoy estimated that approximately half of the bots originated in Russia — although they weren’t necessarily connected to Moscow, he noted — with another 30 percent originating in Venezuela.

A study by George Washington University’s Javier Lesaca revealed similar findings. According to Spanish newspaper El Pais, Lesaca discovered that Russian state outlets RT and Sputnik had “made use of a large number of accounts on social networks related to Venezuela and chavismo in order to propagate a negative image of Spain in the days running up to and after the October 1 referendum on independence in Catalonia.”

“The most surprising thing about the investigation has been the discovery of an entire army of zombie accounts that are perfectly coordinated and that are dedicated to sharing content generated by RT and Sputnik,” Lesaca said.

The findings mimic similar pushes by Moscow-friendly actors to fracture Spanish politics. Per a September piece from the Sydney Morning Herald, the four largest influencers for the #Catalonia hashtag on Twitter were Edward Snowden, Assange, WikiLeaks, and RT. Additionally, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, as Business Insider noted, “has become the [Catalonian] independence movement’s chief international spokesman.” (ThinkProgress was the first American outlet to report on this campaign from Assange, who is neither Spanish nor maintained any link to Catalonia before the lead-up to the referendum.)

CREDIT: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
CREDIT: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD

Assange maintains his own clear links with Moscow. WikiLeaks is widely regarded as a cut-out for Moscow, and Assange himself previously hosted his own show on RT.

Assange, of course, hasn’t left the Ecuadorian embassy in London in five years, but that hasn’t stopped him from building his own links with Catalonian secessionists, even after the referendum. Over the weekend, El Pais reported that one of the primary movers behind the Catalan vote, businessman Oriol Soler, met with Assange at the embassy last week.

Still, Assange’s meeting with Soler doesn’t necessarily bring Catalonia’s independence any closer to fruition, nor do his tweets and retweets on the Catalonian referendum in general.

Autocrats and Facebook

The latest revelations from the U.K. and Spain reinforce the ongoing threat of Russia’s use of social media to meddle in Western democracies. But those same social media misinformation campaigns create even worse havoc in less-developed countries: there, internet infrastructure and democratic norms are not as well-established, which creates ample opportunity for social media-led witch-hunts.

Last November, for instance, the U.N. warned that in war-ravaged South Sudan, “Social media has been used by partisans on all sides, including some senior government officials, to exaggerate incidents, spread falsehoods and veiled threats or post outright messages of incitement.” The majority of South Sudan has no internet access, and the literacy rate hovers around 30 percent. This makes for the perfect environment for rumors originating on Facebook and Twitter to translate into the real world.

“[Groups] can post an inciting message: ‘You of x tribe, what are you waiting for? Such tribe are finishing us, let us go and revenge,’” activist James Bidal told BuzzFeed News. “People read these messages and react on the ground.”

The use of Facebook as a tool for altering public opinion has also been picked up on by despots around the world, many of whom are now manipulating social media to advance their own anti-democratic agendas, according to a new report by the U.S. NGO Freedom House. (Disclaimer: one of the authors of this piece previously worked with Freedom House.)

“They will use this type of social media manipulation to influence weaker countries, harm less educated, vulnerable people, and mire business challengers.”

“Manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 17 other countries over the past year, damaging citizens’ ability to choose their leaders based on factual news and authentic debate,” the report read. “The practice [of attempting to control online discussions] has become significantly more widespread and technically sophisticated, with bots, propaganda posters, and fake news outlets exploiting social media and search algorithms to ensure high visibility and seamless integration with trusted content.”

According to Freedom House, governments have come up with increasingly sophisticated and varied ways to spread misinformation. In the Philippines, for instance, people were reportedly able to make $10 a day running fake accounts that supported the country’s authoritarian president, Rodrigo Duterte. In Turkey, 6,000 people were recruited by President Recep Erdoğan’s ruling AK party to manipulate political discussions. Meanwhile, the government in South Sudan has reportedly recruited its own group of spies dedicated to denouncing critical journalists online.

All of these developments match what former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts warned senators about at the tech hearings earlier this month: that the Kremlin’s disinformation playbook would be adopted by other, less-than-savory characters the world over. “They will use this type of social media manipulation to influence weaker countries, harm less educated, vulnerable people, and mire business challengers,” he said.

The Baltics and Finland offer a path forward

A set of countries which have been under Moscow’s gaze for some time could be the new examples for how others can counter misinformation campaigns.

The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, along with Finland, have had to deal with repeated cyber-attacks and misinformation campaigns originating from Russia in recent years. In May, Russian hackers launched cyber-attacks on the Baltic states’ energy networks, which are set to synchronize with the EU. Last October, Finnish officials said that Russia was targeting it with propaganda, including questioning the legality of its independence.

But Finnish officials and citizens have been able to weather the increasing misinformation originating from the Kremlin, thanks to its strong education system and a comprehensive government strategy designed to defend against fake news and misinformation. For instance, in 2015, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said that information warfare was real and that it was every Finnish citizen’s duty to combat it. In January 2016, the government subsequently enrolled 100 officials to help counter propaganda.

“The best way to respond is less by correcting the information, and more by having your own positive narrative and sticking to it,” Jed Willard, director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Center for Global Engagement at Harvard and one of the Finnish government’s recruits, told Foreign Policy.

Latvia is also working to improve the country’s response to misinformation by improving its school curriculum, emphasizing critical-thinking skills, to help inoculate its children against future misinformation campaigns.

“Our aim is now to build societies that are resilient to these kinds of threats,” Hanis Garisons, state secretary at Latvia’s Ministry of Defense, said. “This is the new normal, and we need to adjust ourselves.”