A 2010 file photo of businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, with Vladimir Putin, in St Petersburg. AP

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN – The Senate Intelligence Committee released two reports this week about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. They both highlight the efforts by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in St. Petersburg to influence black voters. The IRA is owned by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a good friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Prigozhin’s tricksters used ads, posts, and fake accounts on social media platforms to give Donald Trump a boost into the White House. Less known is the extent to which they also tried to depress black votes and undermine support for Hilary Clinton. The Russian persuaders used virtually all platforms including second-tier ones like Reddit, Gab, Pinterest, and Tumblir to lower voter turnout among Democrats in 2016.  

Researchers from Oxford University and Austin-based New Knowledge analyzed data from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Both groups of researchers found Instagram was used much more to reach African Americans than previously thought.

Instagram got 187 million “likes” from content generated by IRA. Facebook users engaged Russian propaganda only 76.5 million times. 

New Knowledge found that African Americans were targeted with dozens of phony Facebook pages compared to one or two pages that were aimed at other ethnic or religious groups. The report found IRA created 81 bogus Facebook pages. The 25 pages aimed at right-wingers drew 1.4 million followers. The 30 pages aimed at African Americans drew 1.2 million. In addition, the Russians launched a Twitter barrage to confuse voters about voting rules and dissuade them from voting.

The Oxford researchers found much the same thing. “These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African-American community was to boycott the election,” they wrote. 

Reaction to the reports came swiftly from the N.A.A.C.P. They called for a week-long boycott of Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee in 2016 asked social media outlets like Facebook and Google to combat “fake news” and develop ways to remove inappropriate content. At first Facebook’s Zuckerberg resisted.

But this year he hired hundreds of workers to combat hate speech and to stop posts and photos that attack people on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality or gender. Both Facebook and Google now use algorithms to catch “inauthentic content” from slipping onto their platforms. 

In July Facebook announced a new partnership with the Atlantic Council, a conservative think tank. Their mission: to decide what content should go and what should stay.

Critics say Google and Facebook have restricted alternative news while corporate news outlets have gotten a pass. For centuries the arbiter of what constitutes protected speech has been the U.S. Supreme Court. But social media has changed the political landscape. Smartphones are the vehicles that navigate it. Social media now controls more of what Americans read and see and are shaping what we think.   

In any case, Facebook and Google aren’t as smart as the Russians. The researchers say they are still up to their tricks and continue to use things like Instagram to divide the electorate and influence American politics.