As It Happens

How Russian trolls tried to convince U.S. activists and people of colour not to vote

Russia's sweeping political disinformation campaign on U.S. social media was more far-reaching than originally thought, according to reports released Monday by the Senate intelligence committee.

Reports released by U.S. Senate reveal Russian election meddling specifically targeted black voters


A pair of new reports detail how Russian trolls have hijacked social media to drive wedges between Americans — and keep some people away from polling stations.

The tactics by Russia's Internet Research Agency include ramping up racial tensions and voter suppression efforts aimed at activists and black Americans, according to two studies prepared for the U.S. Senate intelligence committee. 

Philip Howard is the lead author of the report by Oxford University, where he heads up the school's Internet Institute.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.

We know how Russian trolls attempted to influence how Americans voted in 2016, but your report shows how people did not vote and what the Russian trolls did about that. Who was targeted in this way?

For the most part, it was African-Americans who were targeted this way. The targeting was on the basis of race. Sometimes Mexican-Americans were the target.

But overall, the goal was to discourage people who are not white from voting.

How did they do that?

Good examples include the message that if you're Democrat, voting was not on Tuesday; it was on Friday night and it was at the end of the week.

Or if you were African-American, you could actually text message your vote in. You didn't have to show up at the polling station.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands in Helsinki on July 16, 2018. (Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Lehtikuva via Reuters)

It seems from your research that it was more than just racially targeted, but also people who were activists, people who had political interests, people who were interested in Black Lives Matter, people who are interested in being active in movements.  How did they and why did they target those people?

Those people will go to the streets if they get the right kinds of messages.

The Russian strategy is broadly to polarize public life, polarize political conversation — so if you can get two sides of an argument, people with different perspectives, to show up on the same street corner and have a protest at the same time, then you can set up conflict.

That's how activists were targeted by the Russians. 

It seems that they were trying to discourage people from voting for Hillary Clinton. Can you tell us how they did that?

That messaging was about spreading some of the lies — what we called junk news, other people call fake news — about Hillary Clinton.

There, the effects are actually pretty long term. You can still measure the number of American voters who think that Hillary Clinton may have been involved in something like that pizzeria, you know, in Washington, D.C. Those kinds of rumours about her have lasted quite a long time. 

What effect did that have on how people voted or didn't vote?

It's difficult for us to know how many tweets it takes to change a vote. We don't have any models for how this affects particular voters.

So you can't figure out how many people actually didn't go out and vote because of something that a Russian troll said to them, but can you give us a sense of how influential it was, how many people were actually liking these posts, sharing them, reading them?

We do know that upwards of 30 million U.S. voters saw some of the content that was put out over these Russian accounts.

We do know from other research that this misinformation was concentrated in swing states — so those particular states where a few percentage points ... actually made a made a big difference to the outcome of the electoral college.

And the race-based content was actually targeted at cities where there had been shootings — accidental, intentional shootings, police officers picking off young African-American men.

Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, is the lead author of a report about Russian meddling prepared for the U.S. Senate intelligence committee. (Submitted by Philip Howard)

What was their most successful area of influence?

One of the surprises here is that the volume of content didn't diminish after we caught them in 2016. It actually increased. It doubled and then tripled again over the course of a year, and it moved from Facebook on to Instagram.

So I think the success is that they've managed to sustain their engagement program with the U.S. public over an extended period just by moving platforms, by developing a cross-platform strategy. 

There's one bogus Facebook account created by the Russians called "Blacktivists" — 4.6 million likes on it — and their message was that not voting is a way of exercising our rights. This is something we heard quite often from young people during the campaign, that they weren't going to vote at all because that would be sending a message.

I do think that in a democracy, not voting is a form of political expression. And I also think that it's unusual to have a foreign power actually intervene to spread that message.

You're a Canadian. Where do you see us as vulnerable?

Unfortunately, the Russian strategy is often about playing on sensitive issues, subnational issues. 

There are several sensitive community issues around the country that could be picked out, if it became a goal for Russia to do so.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Sarah Joyce-Battesrby. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.