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Research by Oxford University reveals scale of Russian intervention in US election

Research by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and network analysis firm Graphika has provided the most comprehensive analysis into Russia’s disinformation campaign around the 2016 US election.

According to the Washington Post, a draft of the report reveals the Russians to have targeted voters through social media to encourage them to elect Donald Trump.

The research is the first to study the millions of posts obtained by the Senate Intelligence Committee and offers new insights into how the Russian Internet Research Agency divided American voters into key interest groups in order to target them.

The Russian Internet Research Agency has previously been charged by US officials with criminal offences for interfering in the 2016 presidential campaign.

In 2017, social media companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter began to tighten up on known Russian accounts and provided the data used by the Oxford and Graphika researchers. This data covered several years, ending in mid-2017.

The report, which also analysed data provided separately to House Intelligence Committee members, does not take into its scope more recent political events, such as November’s midterm elections.

The draft obtained by the Washington Post reads: “What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party – and specifically Donald Trump.

“The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

This research is the latest evidence that Russian agents aided Trump’s victory in 2016, reinforcing the conclusion of the US Intelligence Community’s 2017 report.

The data suggests the Russians made a particular effort to spur conservatives on issues such as gun control and immigration, while undermining the faith of African American voters by spreading misleading information about how to vote. Many other groups, including Latinos, Muslims, Christians, and members of the LGBTQ+ community were also targeted by Russians operating thousands of social media accounts.

Efforts to manipulate Americans increased year on year, spiking in 2016 and starting with accounts on Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, before targeting voters on Facebook too.

Facebook was especially effective at targeting conservatives and African Americans, the report said. Over 99% of all engagement came from 20 Russian-controlled Facebook pages, including ‘Heart of Texas’ and ‘Army of Jesus’.

The report also revealed that operatives began buying Google ads in order to promote ‘BlackMatters US’, a website with provocative messages such as, ‘Cops kill black kids. Are you sure your son won’t be next?’.

Oxford University and Graphika’s research adds to previously expressed concern about the overall threat social media poses to national politics, warning that many social media companies are now threats to democracy. 

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