The IRA and Political Polarization in the United States

Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) launched an extended attack on the United States by using computational propaganda to misinform and polarize US voters. This report provides the first major analysis of this attack based on data provided by social media firms to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI).

This analysis answers several key questions about the activities of the known IRA accounts. In this analysis, we investigate how the IRA exploited the tools and platform of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to impact US users. We identify which aspects of the IRA’s campaign strategy got the most traction on social media and the means of microtargeting US voters with particular messages.

We provide an overview of our findings below:

  • Between 2013 and 2018, the IRA’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter campaigns reached tens of millions of users in the United States.
    • Over 30 million users, between 2015 and 2017, shared the IRA’s Facebook and Instagram posts with their friends and family, liking, reacting to, and commenting on them along the way.
    • Peaks in advertising and organic activity often correspond to important dates in the US political calendar, crises, and international events.
    • IRA activities focused on the US began on Twitter in 2013 but quickly evolved into a multi-platform strategy involving Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube among other platforms.
    • The most far reaching IRA activity is in organic posting, not advertisements.
  • Russia’s IRA activities were designed to polarize the US public and interfere in elections by:
    • campaigning for African American voters to boycott elections or follow the wrong voting procedures in 2016, and more recently for Mexican American and Hispanic voters to distrust US institutions;
    • encouraging extreme right-wing voters to be more confrontational; and
    • spreading sensationalist, conspiratorial, and other forms of junk political news and misinformation to voters across the political spectrum.
  • Surprisingly, these campaigns did not stop once Russia’s IRA was caught interfering in the 2016 election. Engagement rates increased and covered a widening range of public policy issues, national security issues, and issues pertinent to younger voters.
    • The highest peak of IRA ad volume on Facebook is in April 2017, the month of the Syrian missile strike, the use of the Mother of All Bombs on ISIS tunnels in eastern Afghanistan, and the release of the tax reform plan.
    • IRA posts on Instagram and Facebook increased substantially after the election, with Instagram seeing the greatest increase in IRA activity.
    • The IRA accounts actively engaged with disinformation and practices common to Russian trolling. Some posts referred to Russian troll factories that flooded online conversations with posts, others denied being Russian trolls, and some even complained about the platform’s alleged political biases when they faced account suspension.

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