Trump "specifically" supported by Russian hackers, Senate report confirms

A report released by the Senate damns tech firms for a “belated and uncoordinated” response

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A new report released by the US Senate has confirmed that pro-Trump Russian propaganda was spread on social media in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. Platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr and Paypal were all employed as means of influencing the election.

The research undertaken was extensive, with millions of social media posts from Facebook, Twitter and Google analysed. Facebook, for its part, provided the interrogatory body with posts from 81 pages on the site, in addition to information on 76 accounts used to purchase ads. Authors of the report lamented that moves to this end did not go far enough, urging the release of posts from more IRA accounts.

The report, a result of the collaboration between Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda and social network analysis company Graphika, confirmed long-existing suspicions about Russian meddling.

While the role played by Facebook in the dissemination of fake news and propaganda has long been heeded, less has been said about the myriad other online platforms used in the daily lives of millions. This most recent report has flagged evidence of Russian malpractice on other online household names, such as Google+, Paypal, Tumblr and YouTube.

The ways in which sites were manipulated were manifold, with Russian hackers using nuanced digital marketing techniques to reach – and exploit – audiences stateside.

Director of the Oxford Institute Philip N Howard told the BBC of the ubiquity of the problem. “It’s a whole family of social media sites,” he explained. Facebook, then, might just have been a scapegoat for a far more pervasive problem. Why the multi-pronged strategy? “We think the goal was to make the campaigns seem more legitimate,” he said.

As for the perpetrator, the report found that Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) was driving much of the campaign. The IRA has long been apprehended by the US government as a duplicitous body with reported ties to Putin’s government.

The beneficiary of the IRA’s toils appears to have been the Republican Party and its leader, the report posits. The campaign focused on conservative voters, spreading information about gun rights, race and immigration, and encouraging them to support the Trump campaign.

Left-wing counterparts were not overlooked, with the IRA targeting them with misinformation about the voting process, in a bid to inhibit the demographic electorally. “The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting,” the report confirmed.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party,” concluded the report, adding, “and specifically Donald Trump”.

Meanwhile, tech firms have been criticised for shortcomings in their response to the crisis. The Senate’s assessment was damning, calling companies’ attempts at damage control a “belated and uncoordinated response”. For Zuckerberg, Pinchar and the tech titans, the fight against purposefully deployed misinformation on their platforms remains and uphill battle.

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