Russian agents who sought to influence the US presidential election toasted Donald Trump’s 2016 victory with champagne and declared they had “made American great,” according to a Senate Intelligence Committee report.
Its activity was “overtly and almost invariably supportive of then-candidate Trump” and to the detriment of his opponent Hillary Clinton‘s campaign, Republican-led group concluded.
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The committee said it had obtained communication in which an IRA “information warfare operative” spoke of having a “sleepless night” after the US went after polls on 8 November 2016.
The employee said: “When around 8am the most important result of our work arrived, we uncorked a tiny bottle of champagne … took one gulp each and looked into each other’s eyes.
“We uttered almost in unison: ‘We made America great.’”
Following the election, the IRA ramped up rather than scaled back its attempts to influence American politics, senators said.
Activity by social media accounts linked to the agency jumped more than 200 per cent on Instagram and more than 50 per cent on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube after Mr Trump’s victory, the committee found.
“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,” said Richard Burr, the Republican chair of the committee.
The long-awaited report, published on Tuesday, reaffirmed findings by the US intelligence community and special counsel Robert Mueller that the Kremlin had sought to swing the 2016 vote in favour of Mr Trump.
On YouTube, all of the IRA’s political videos were opposed to Ms Clinton. Some were aimed at dissuading black Americans to vote, while others suggested they vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
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African-Americans were also the group most targeted by Russian campaigns seeking exacerbate tensions, according to the report.
False and slanted stories often spread more rapidly than professional, independent news, said the committee. In the key swing state of Michigan, one study found that ratio “was most disproportionate the day before the election.”
One IRA-run Facebook page with more than 200,000 followers, “Army of Jesus,” posted only pro-Christian messages until just before the election. It then published a false story claiming Ms Clinton had approved removing the word “God” from the US Pledge of Allegiance.
The disinformation campaign went well beyond Facebook and Twitter, sweeping up Medium, Tumblr and Pinterest as well, the committee noted.
The report recommended congress consider new laws requiring disclosure of who pays for election-related online advertising. Senators expressed particular alarm at sophisticated micro-targeting, warning the IRA could have been much more effective in swing states if it had used Facebook tools for customising audiences instead of just using geography.
“Propagandists will be able to continue to utilise increasingly advanced off-the-shelf capabilities to target specific individuals with highly targeted messaging campaigns,” said the detailed 85-page report.
It also called on social media companies, which have come under fire for allowing propaganda to flourish, should share more information about what they find on their platforms.