Russian trolls and bots focused on controversial topics in an effort to stoke political division on an enormous scale and it hasnt stopped, experts say
For the past year, the world has reeled over escalating reports of how Russia hacked the 2016 US presidential election, by stealing emails from Democrats, attacking voter registration lists and voting machines and running a social media shell game.
Such is the focus on Russian meddling that congressional investigators are increasingly aggressive in asking the big tech companies to account for how their platforms became the staging grounds for an attack on American democracy. Early next month that scrutiny will intensify, with executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter formally invited to appear before the House intelligence committee on Capitol Hill in Washington.
What has now been made clear is that Russian trolls and automated bots not only promoted explicitly pro-Donald Trump messaging, but also used social media to sow social divisions in America by stoking disagreement and division around a plethora of controversial topics such as immigration and Islamophobia.
And, even more pertinently, it is clear that these interventions are continuing as Russian agents stoke division around such recent topics as white supremacist marches and NFL players taking a knee to protest police violence.
The overarching goal, during the election and now, analysts say, is to expand and exploit divisions, attacking the American social fabric where it is most vulnerable, along lines of race, gender, class and creed.
The broader Russian strategy is pretty clearly about destabilizing the country by focusing on and amplifying existing divisions, rather than supporting any one political party, said Jonathon Morgan, a former state department adviser on digital responses to terrorism whose company, New Knowledge, analyzes the manipulation of public discourse.
I think it absolutely continues.
Urgent threat, slow response
In the last month mostly through vigorous reporting and academic research we have also learned that the impact of Russias Facebook infiltration was far more widespread than Mark Zuckerberg claimed when Barack Obama pulled him aside at a conference in Peru last November to inform the young titan he had a problem on his hands. As more evidence emerges revealing the extent of the Russian web invasion, it is clear that its footprint is far larger than the tech giants have ever conceded.
On Facebook alone, Russia-linked imposters had hundreds of millions of interactions with potential voters who believed they were interacting with fellow Americans, according to an estimate by Jonathan Albright of Columbia Universitys Tow Center for Digital Journalism, who broke the story wide open with the publication of a trove of searchable data earlier this month.