Russian disinformation campaign on social media extensive, ongoing, according to reports

Social media companies may have given the bare minimum amount of information on the Russian accounts

WASHINGTON, DC (CNN) - New reports to the Senate Intelligence Committee indicate that social media companies may have given the bare minimum amount of information during the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling.

The panel, which hasn’t said whether it has endorsed the findings, plans to release two reports this week.

According to both reports, the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg, Russia, company run by an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, created a bevy of fake accounts on multiple social media platforms to support President Donald Trump in his primary race against Republican opponents and, ultimately, to help him gain the White House.

A report, created by cybersecurity company New Knowledge along with Columbia University researchers and Canfield Research LLC, was released Monday.

The New Knowledge report said that disinformation campaigns targeted the black community and Democrats in an attempt to curtail voter turnout, and described its posts on Instagram as “a blizzard ... that rivaled or exceeded its Facebook operations.”

The study says that there were 187 million engagements with users on Instagram, while there were 77 million on Facebook.

On the same day of the new reports, the NAACP called for a daylong “logging out” of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp on Tuesday because of Facebook’s “engagement with partisan firms, its targeting of political opponents, the spread (of) misinformation and the utilization of Facebook for propaganda promoting disingenuous portrayals of the African American community,” the civil rights organization said.

The NAACP said on Twitter it had returned a monetary donation it recently received from Facebook.

Facebook, Twitter and Google complied with congressional requests for data on Russian social media accounts posing as American accounts, but according to a source familiar with a new report, the firm the Senate hired to review the data told lawmakers there are likely more Russian accounts that the social media companies failed to identify.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party - and specifically Donald Trump,” the report said. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

Some of the Russian-controlled social media accounts are still live, the report said.

“With at least some of the Russian government’s goals achieved in the face of little diplomatic or other pushback, it appears likely that the United States will continue to face Russian interference for the foreseeable future,” the researchers said.

A second report, by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, a network analysis firm, will be released later this week.

The Washington Post reported Sunday on a draft report commissioned by the committee, looking at data provided by the tech firms through mid-2017 that provides an even clearer view of the scope of Russia’s social media manipulation, said Craig Timberg, technology reporter at the Washington Post.

“This in many ways is the report we’ve been waiting for. It’s sweeping, it’s comprehensive,” he said.

The Oxford report said peaks in Internet Research Agency’s social media activity often corresponded with important dates in the U.S. calendar, crises and international events.

During the week of the election, posts on right-leaning sites connected to the agency were designed to sow anger and suspicion and hinted at voter fraud, while posts on sites targeted to African-Americans largely ignored mentions of the election until the last minute.

The group’s posts focused on the U.S. started on Twitter as far back as 2013, and eventually evolved into a multi-platform strategy, and the group became fluent in American social media trolling language.

Google and Facebook declined to comment on the report, but a Google spokesperson pointed to the company’s efforts to combat disinformation.

Twitter said it has made "significant strides" against the manipulation of its service.

Timberg explained that the disinformation campaign extended well past 2016.

“Every platform that these researchers tracked posted more often after the election,” he said. “We tend to think of this narrative in terms of coming up to election day but actually intensified after Election Day.”

The interference wasn’t limited to merely social media posts.

The report said the Russian accounts attempted to connect with Americans and recruit assets, such as selling merchandise with certain messages, follower requests, job offers and even help lines that could encourage people to unknowingly disclose sensitive information that could be used against them.

The Russians even used social media to encourage players of Pokemon Go to use politically divisive usernames,

The Russian influence through social media is part of what Robert Mueller is investigating as part of the special counsel probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible connections with the Trump campaign.

Mueller indicted 13 Russians in connection with the operation in February 2018.

Copyright 2018 CNN. All rights reserved. Raycom News Network and the Associated Press contributed to this report.