New Congressional Report Details Russian Social Media Meddling

NEWS ANALYSIS: Russia’s Internet Research Agency took an active role in spreading discord on social media about a variety of U.S. domestic issues especially those related to energy.

Russian Social Media Trolling

The images go on from page after page in a new staff report from the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology detailing Russian efforts to influence public opinion on hot button domestic issues in the U.S. related to energy use and production. 

The images came from posts and advertising that ran on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and they attempt to produce emotional responses covering all sides of the argument for such issues as oil well fracking, the Dakota oil pipeline and even lithium mining for electric car batteries. 

The slickly produced ads and carefully crafted Tweets attempt to garner a response from like-minded people with feelings about a variety of issues related to energy. The Committee report charges that the Russian Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, used a variety of fake social media accounts to post the images and to buy the ads. The goal was to draw traffic to the images and to inflame opinion on one side or the other. 

The images were provided by the social media companies at the request of the Committee. They ran between 2015 and 2017, and as was the case with other Russian social media efforts, this one took all sides of every issue, whether it was the Dakota Pipeline or alternative energy sources. 

According to figures provided by the Committee staff, the IRA posted 9,097 posts or Tweets about U.S. energy policy and they used 4,334 accounts on social media. The report says in its findings that, “The IRA targeted pipelines, fossil fuels, climate change, and other divisive issues to influence public policy in the U.S.” 

The report also charged that the IRA used its social media presence to manipulate environmental groups to get them to carry out the Russian agenda. The idea was to develop support for those groups and their agenda, not so much to achieve ends that the Russians wanted as to create chaos and discord. 

“The Kremlin continues to employ this tactic, which has become substantially more effective with the proliferation of the Internet and social media,” the report says. “By leveraging the sincerely held views and beliefs of unwitting agents, the Kremlin is able to exploit polarized issues in American democracy to influence action in furtherance of its agenda.” 

The Russian trolls did more than inflame opinion about existing issues. They also used social media to create issues where none existed by making up stories. As example was a fake news story posted on Facebook that congratulated the state of Iowa, claiming that the state had built thousands of wind turbines and that the state had converted totally renewable energy. 

That post by the IRA troll “Born Liberal” received hundreds of shares. Meanwhile, the IRA using the name “Heart of Texas” promoted oil drilling in Texas. Another with the name “mericanfury” used fake photos to claim that electric cars were an environmental disaster compared to Canadian oil sands. 

Probably the strangest was a Facebook post, again by “Heart of Texas” that showed a polar bear floating on an ice floe, with a red stamp saying “SCAM” and saying climate change isn’t real and attempting to gather support for a tax protest due to climate change taxes. 

Meanwhile the IRA was creating thousands of Tweets on Twitter claiming to report on events that never happened, apparent retweets that weren’t real, or were retweets from other IRA accounts. The idea was to use social media to give the impression of great support when the people doing it were really Russian trolls. 

“The Committee will continue to work with social media companies, which have taken positive steps to bring transparency to the online debate. Americans have a right to know that much of what they view online is being disseminated by foreign agents,” the Committee staff said in concluding its report. 

“The Committee is publicizing the posts and tweets included in this report to show Americans the broad nature of Russia’s meddling and to reveal Russia’s attempts to deceive and influence the American public,” the report concluded. 

Because the focus of this report had to do with Russia’s attempts to intervene in energy policy in the U.S., it doesn’t show the full range of Russian meddling in other areas. But it does give a sobering look at the lengths to which Russia and the IRA will go to shape public opinion on domestic issues in the U.S. 

The reported stated that Russia was taking these actions because U.S. energy production was costing Russia its near monopoly status as an energy producer in Europe and elsewhere. But in many cases the goal is simply to undermine institutions in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. 

But for organizations in the U.S. that want to take advantage of social media to get their own word out, it has another implication. Because of the corrosive nature of Russian meddling, trust in social media has been eroded. Now, when people see something presented on social media, they have to stop and wonder whether it’s true. This makes the job of communications via social media much more difficult. 

Equally important, it reduces your ability to communicate effectively with your staff and your customers if they decide they can’t trust anything that they read online.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...