Russia apparently using Instagram to mess with US elections again

Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, owns the Internet Research Agency, which CNN linked to recent ads seemingly meant to inflame social divisions in the US. He’s shown with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2010.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, owns the Internet Research Agency, which CNN linked to recent ads seemingly meant to inflame social divisions in the US. He’s shown with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2010.
Image: Alexei Druzhinin/Pool Photo via AP, File
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We regret to inform you that Russia is apparently at it again.

CNN recently exposed a troll farm linked to Russia running social media accounts with names like “Roots Revival” and “AfricaMustWake” that amplified news about race, presumably to foment discord in American society.

This time the trolls weren’t in Russia, but rather operating from Ghana and Nigeria, from a nonprofit organization called “Eliminating Barriers for the Liberation of Africa.” Facebook and Twitter said that the accounts had ties to the Internet Research Agency; its founder, according to CNN, lives in Russia.

Here’s what one account posted on Instagram in January, with phrasing that’s slightly strange for account claiming to be based in the United States:

An Instagram post with a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and which says "America should stand firm on what it preaches. Civil rights activism and racism are the products of slavery and imperialism. We live in a country where democracy is preached so much to be upheld, but we wake up each seeing and hearing of shootings and arbitrary arrest of the black people. Simple questions of where our democracy went are left unanswered. We juxtapose and act like hypocrites knowing very well that our systems are not working yet we preach to others to look at us and build their country. #civilrights #martinlutherking #communityservice #news"
An Instagram post linked by Facebook to Russian meddlers.
Image: Facebook

Instagram was the biggest success for the meddlers: about 172,000 Americans followed one of the Russia-linked accounts, according to Facebook. The Twitter account with the most followers, @AfricaMustWake, had about 9,000 followers. That account described itself as a “Platform For #BLM #Racism #PoliceBrutality Commentary And Analysis // Unapologetically Black// Help The Needy,” and said it was based in Florida.

Unlike in 2016, the accounts appear to have gathered their followers organically—less than $5 was spent on US-focused ads by the trolls. Facebook says it “repeatedly rejected attempts by this network to run issue or political ads” using its strengthened enforcement rules against foreign meddling.

The accounts’ posts reacted to real news events and popular memes. For instance, one tweet highlighted the case of Rodney Reed, a Texas death-row inmate whose execution has since been suspended. When an image circulated widely of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood host Fred Rogers soaking his feet in a kiddie pool with Francois Clemmons, a black man who played a police officer on the show, the AfricaMustWake Instagram account re-posted the meme, saying “Nice gesture but do you think it worked?? Drop your comments below,” according to a copy of that post saved on Pinterest. In a blog post, Facebook said that the content of the accounts’ posts wasn’t the problem, but instead the use of fake, coordinated accounts.

A person working on the nonprofit organization’s page was told to post content late at night—during US waking hours—and to read and post from US news sources, according to CNN.

The focus on racial issues was akin to what Russia’s Internet Research Agency did during the 2016 election, according to the Mueller Report, using Facebook pages like “Blacktivist” and “Sincerely Black.” One recently-removed account, called “Queer world,” focused on LGBTQ issues. In 2016, Russia-linked groups tried to play both sides of American politics; they also used fake groups like “South United” and “Being Patriotic” that focused on amplifying extreme right-wing perspectives.

This time around, the groups Facebook and Twitter says it found and shut down  focused only on left-wing views of race and LGBTQ issues. It’s unclear if Russian meddlers have given up on the right wing—or if it just hasn’t been found yet.