How Instagram Became the Russian IRA’s Go-To Social Network
“For Russian misinformation mongers, 2017 was the year of Instagram. As Facebook and Twitter cracked down on foreign influence campaigns amid media scrutiny, the Kremlin’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) found unprecedented success in shifting its disinformation efforts to the photo-sharing app, according to a new report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee. On Instagram, the IRA waged memetic warfare against millions of users by creating a robust and sophisticated network of accounts related to key social justice and political issues. These profiles weren’t crude or poorly managed but, rather, part of a well-oiled influence machine designed to weaponize the social clout wielded by power users on Instagram.
‘Instagram was perhaps the most effective platform for the Internet Research Agency,’ concludes the report, written by cybersecurity firm New Knowledge. The IRA created just 133 Instagram accounts. But a dozen of these attracted more than 100,000 followers, commonly viewed as a threshold to mark an account an ‘influencer;’ approximately 50 surpassed the ‘micro-influencer’ milestone of 10,000 followers. Like many American influencers, the IRA monetized its digital popularity by pushing custom-made merchandise—giving it access to the purchasers’ personally identifying information, and promoting partnerships with brands. On Instagram, the IRA aggressively targeted black Americans as well as the left and right with a coordinated, multi-level influence campaign powered by networks of related and opposing profiles, which worked in consort to envelop users in a highly controlled ecosystem of the Kremlin’s design. The most successful accounts were focused on black culture, feminism, LGBTQ+ issues, Christianity, veterans, and gun rights, and garnered more than 10 million interactions—likes and comments—each. Others impersonated news outlets and journalists in the hopes of exacerbating distrust in the the actual media among target audiences. The goal, as with much of the Russians’ online activity, was to exacerbate divisions and stoke resentments in the US.”