Exposing Russia’s Effort to Sow Discord Online: The Internet Research Agency and Advertisements

On February 16, 2018 Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III indicted 13 Russian individuals and three Russian organizations for engaging in operations to interfere with U.S. political and electoral processes, including the 2016 presidential election. This was a significant step forward in exposing a surreptitious social media campaign and holding accountable those responsible for this attack. The indictment spells out in exhaustive detail the breadth and systematic nature of this conspiracy, dating back to 2014, as well as the multiple ways in which Russian actors misused online platforms to carry out their clandestine operations.

Throughout the indictment, Mueller lays out important facts about the activities of the Internet Research Agency (IRA)—the notorious Russian “troll” farm—and its operatives:

“Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences. These groups and pages, which addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when, in fact, they were controlled by Defendants. Defendants also used the stolen identities of real U.S. persons to post on ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts. Over time, these social media accounts became Defendants’ means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016.”  

The indictment also notes that the IRA:

“[H]ad a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump (“Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton. Defendants made various expenditures to carry out those activities, including buying political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities. Defendants also staged political rallies inside the United States, and while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons, and without revealing their Russian identities and ORGANIZATION affiliation, solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates. Some Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”

Additionally, in their October 2016 joint attribution statement, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence laid out the Intelligence Community’s assessment that senior Russian government officials had directed a hacking-and-dumping campaign to interfere in the November 2016 U.S. election. In its subsequent Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) in January 2017, the Intelligence Community further documented Moscow’s interference in our election and its efforts to assist Donald Trump’s campaign and harm Hillary Clinton’s.

According to the ICA: 

“Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”

The ICA also assesses that:

“Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Putin and the Russian government, the ICA explained: 

“[A]spired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.” 

The tools to carry out this covert operation were multifaceted, according to the Assessment: 

“Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.”

As explained in our Minority Views, the House Intelligence Committee Minority affirmed the ICA’s findings following a review of extensive classified and unclassified evidence in the course of the investigation, including significant information discovered since the release of the ICA in January 2017.

The House Intelligence Committee Minority has worked to expose the Kremlin’s exploitation of social media networks since the ICA was first published, highlighting this issue for the American public during an open hearing with social media companies in November 2017. The Committee Minority also released a list of Twitter accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency and a representative sampling of Facebook ads paid for by the group.

Throughout our investigation, the Committee Minority has sought to make available to the public advertisements, accounts and information related to the IRA because of our strong belief that sunlight is the best disinfectant against any future attempts to weaken our democracy or interfere in our free and fair elections process.  Moreover, Congress does not have the technical expertise to fully analyze this data—that lies in outside groups such as news publications and academic researchers. We hope that the publication of these materials will facilitate this important work. 

As Ranking Member Adam Schiff stated during the Committee’s November 2017 open hearing with senior officials from Facebook, Twitter, and Google:

“[The Russian] social media campaign was designed to further a broader Kremlin objective: sowing discord in the U.S. by inflaming passions on a range of divisive issues. The Russians did so by weaving together fake accounts, pages, and communities to push politicized content and videos, and to mobilize real Americans to sign online petitions and join rallies and protests. Russia exploited real vulnerabilities that exist across online platforms and we must identify, expose, and defend ourselves against similar covert influence operations in the future.  The companies here today must play a central role as we seek to better protect legitimate political expression, while preventing cyberspace from being misused by our adversaries.”

As part of that continuing effort to educate the public and seek additional analysis, the Committee Minority is making available all IRA advertisements identified by Facebook. This is an effort to be fully transparent with the public, allow outside experts to analyze the data, and provide the American people a fuller accounting of Russian efforts to sow discord and interfere in our democracy. 

Facebook data:

As part of the Committee’s open hearing with social media companies in November 2017, the Minority used a number of advertisements as exhibits, and made others available as part of a small representative sampling. During the hearing, Committee Members noted the breadth of activity by the IRA on Facebook:

  • 3,393 advertisements purchased (a total 3,519 advertisements total were released after more were identified by the company);
  • More than 11.4 million American users exposed to those advertisements;
  • 470 IRA-created Facebook pages;
  • 80,000 pieces of organic content created by those pages; and
  • Exposure of organic content to more than 126 million Americans.

The Facebook advertisements we are publishing today have been carefully reviewed by the Committee Minority and redacted by Facebook to protect personally-identifiable information (PII). To protect innocent victims, Facebook—at the urging of the Committee Minority—also has notified users whose genuine online events were unwittingly promoted by the IRA.

The data made available today does not include the 80,000 pieces of organic content shared on Facebook by the IRA. We expect to make this content public in the future.

Advertisements from 2015, 2016 and 2017 can be found here.

Twitter data:

During the Committee’s November 2017 open hearing, the Minority introduced into the record 2,752 Twitter accounts that Twitter identified as connected to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Kremlin-linked “troll farm.” These accounts were designed to impersonate U.S. news entities, political parties, and groups focused on social and political issues. During the hearing, the Minority also revealed a selection of Twitter advertisements paid for by Russian news outlet RT, which the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment labeled as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”

According to data provided to the Committee by Twitter, a snapshot of relevant Twitter activity in the period between September 1 and November 15, 2016 reveals:

  • More than 36,000 Russian-linked bot accounts tweeted about the U.S. election
  • More than 36,000 Russian-linked bot accounts tweeted about the U.S. election
  • Approximately 288 million impressions of Russian bot tweets; and 
  • More than 130,00 tweets by accounts linked to the IRA.

The Minority is making public an additional 1,103 accounts that were identified by Twitter subsequent to the November 1, 2017 hearing as connected to the IRA. Twitter has also informed that it removed 14 handles from the original list provided to Congress last fall, yielding an updated total of 3,841 Twitter accounts affiliated with the IRA. Twitter now believes those 14 accounts should not be included based on improved methodology, improved understanding of IRA characteristics, and other new information – including the possibility that some are authentic user accounts that had become compromised.

The Minority is also releasing all advertisements run by RT on Twitter during the election timeframe.

Finally, the Minority is also making available a sampling of voter suppression tweets provided by Twitter that sought to mislead voters about the election by posting incorrect dates and information related to voting. There is no indication that this particular activity had links to the Russian influence campaign, but we believe it is vitally important for the public to understand and view nefarious online activity meant to weaken our democratic process.

  • Updated comprehensive list of Internet Research Agency-linked accounts identified by Twitter can be found here
  • Paid advertisements run by RT in the election timeframe can be found here (@RT_com)here (@RT_America), and here (@ActualidadRT).
  • Sampling of voter suppression content discovered by Twitter and provided to the Committee before the November 1, 2017 hearing can be found here