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Senate Report: Russians Used Social Media Mostly To Target Race In 2016

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., (left) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., released a new report on how Russians used social media targeting to meddle with the 2016 election.
J. Scott Applewhite

The Russian government's interference in the 2016 U.S. elections singled out African Americans, a new Senate committee report concludes.

Using Facebook pages, Instagram content and Twitter posts, Russian information operatives working for the Internet Research Agency had an "overwhelming operational emphasis on race ... no single group of Americans was targeted ... more than African Americans."

That was evident throughout the IRA's Facebook content, the report said, citing the fact that over 66 percent of that content contained a term related to race.

And using ads with location targeting "principally aimed at African-Americans in key metropolitan areas," the Russian information operations focused on pages like Blacktivist, which garnered 11.2 million engagements with Facebook users.

The report, written by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, also said the Internet Research Agency, which worked "at the direction of the Kremlin," increased its activity after Election Day in 2016.

Following the 2016 election, "Instagram activity increased 238 percent, Facebook increased 59 percent, Twitter increased 52 percent, and YouTube citations went up by 84 percent," the report found.

The committee's work also affirmed the conclusions of earlier investigations on Russian interference in the elections, including the Mueller report's findings and the Jan. 6, 2017, Intelligence Community Assessment.

"The Committee found that IRA social media activity was overtly and almost invariably supportive of then-candidate Trump," the report reads. "The Committee found that the Russian government tasked and supported the IRA' s interference in the 2016 U.S. election."

The Senate committee found that the Internet Research Agency sought to harm Democrat Hillary Clinton and support Donald Trump "at the direction of the Kremlin."

And the study also concluded that the IRA sought to focus on socially divisive issues like race to pit Americans against one another.

The results of the report are part of an ongoing investigation into Russian election interference first launched by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2017.

"By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories, and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans," Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said in a written statement.

The recommendations of the report include better coordination between social media companies, as well as more information sharing between Big Tech companies and the government.

The report also recommends that Congress pass legislation that requires that tech platforms disclose who paid for online political advertisements and that the executive branch form an interagency task force to monitor foreign use of social media for democratic interference.

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Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.