LGBTQ+ social media users users were specifically targeted by a now-infamous Russian troll farm purposely meddling with the 2016 election, according to two new reports released this week. In one, a finding published by Oxford University, the survey of the damage done during the 2016 election cycle found “that the campaigns sought to demobilize African Americans, LGBT, and liberal voters,” through a series of Facebook pages and Instagram accounts.
The “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency, based in Saint Petersburg, Russia, was also the subject of a report from the United States Intelligence Community in 2017, which led to the grand jury indictment of 12 individuals who were once employed by the company. Oxford’s recent investigation found that the organization had “adapted existing techniques from digital advertising to spread disinformation and propaganda.” Using a combination of organic and promoted posts (purchasing Facebook ads) IRA planted propaganda and stoked anti-government sentiments aimed at neutralizing LGBTQ+ voters’ interest in voting. The company bought 70 ads specifically around “LGBT rights and social liberalism,” according to the report, getting over 900,000 user impressions. Of those impressions, over 80,000 users clicked on the pages associated with those posts.
One of the pages created, called LGBT United, racked up over 2 million likes since its inception and was a key part of their misinformation operation. In early 2015, promoted posts for LGBT United and the conservative-themed page Being Patriotic, which was also created by IRA, together accounted for almost 100% of the agency’s purchased ads. Additionally, throughout 2015, nearly half of IRA’s 4,108 organic posts were posted to the LGBT United page. That early start allowed the farm’s campaign to queer communities to build an expansive reach, way before the presidential election cycle began in earnest.
Posts from LGBT United harped on current events and antagonized “groups that are perceived as anti-gay.” One post made the case that then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton supported Muslims and then insinuated that Muslims were anti-gay. Another went further, referring to her husband Bill Clinton’s signing of the Defense of Marriage Law Act (DOMA) in 1996 as an attack on the gay community, linking her by proxy; DOMA defined marriage, for federal benefits and purposes, as a union between a man and a woman exclusively. The tactic aimed to not only heighten emotions around LGBTQ+ rights, effectively further polarizing issues and painting Clinton as anti-gay, but also (and possibly more importantly) breed feelings of distrust and cynicism among queer voters to not turn out at the polls.
In total, the report found that “IRA content was shared by about 31 million users, liked by almost 39 million users, garnered almost 54 million emoji reactions, and generated almost 35 million comments,” aimed primarily at black, conservative, and queer audiences, respectively, through a multi-year effort — the campaign targeting Black voters was the “most prolific,” spanning dozens of accounts and websites, prompting the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to boycott Facebook and Instagram for a week. All of this content was purposefully aimed at swaying U.S. voters’ opinions, exploiting already existing tensions between communities.
A second report by researchers at New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company, and Columbia University, found that accounts on Instagram, which has been owned by Facebook since 2012, were also run by the farm. The report says “Instagram was perhaps the most effective platform for the Internet Research Agency.”
While IRA operated a variety of pages, one titled Rainbow_Nation_US, amassed over 150,000 followers, putting it squarely above “influencer” status by the social media platform’s standards — influencers are generally considered to be accounts with over 100,000 followers. IRA had at least 25 Instagram accounts and Rainbow Nation ranked among its top five in terms of post engagement.
Through these channels, the firm was found to sell and promote “LGBT-positive sex toys” and other items, possibly providing IRA with revenue, or for gathering information like names, addresses, and phone numbers. The Instagram effort started in January 2015, earning more than 150 million likes with about 1,500 likes per post from IRA-run accounts.
The New Knowledge report also found that these profiles were used for recruiting human assets. On one hand, these pages posted requests as simple as assistance in protesting the infamously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church. But the IRA went further, creating “help hotlines for people struggling with sexual behavior,” which then provided “an opportunity to blackmail or manipulate these individuals in the future.”
One graphic cited in the report, attributed to LGBT United reads, “If any gay/lesbian/transgender teenagers need anyone to talk to I’m here and I’ll listen. I’m not looking for a hook up or anything. I won't even give out my gender or name. Times are hard and no one deserves to feel alone.” There was success in getting contact with at least some of these attempts according to the Department of Justice, and engagement numbers in the data provided by Facebook indicated that people did comment on these posts.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman has called all of the findings “absolutely baseless.”
A representative for Facebook told OUT on Wednesday via email, “As we've said all along, Congress and the intelligence community are best placed to use the information we and others provide to determine the political motivations of actors like the Internet Research Agency. We continue to fully cooperate with officials investigating the IRA's activity on Facebook and Instagram around the 2016 election. We've provided thousands of ads and pieces of content to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence for review and shared information with the public about what we found. Since then, we've made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy.”
Whether or not the IRA was wholly successful is unclear. When it comes to how the the queer community voted in the 2016 election, according to reports, Trump lost LGBT voters to Clinton in a landslide. Exit polls showed that Trump “received the lowest percentage of support from LGBT voters than all previous Republican presidential nominees since exit polls began measuring the LGBT vote,” according to Washington Blade. Little has been reported on LGBTQ+ voter turnout specifically so whether or not the IRA accomplished its goal of neutralizing voters is not immediately apparent.
But what is more clear and apparent is the more primary goal of sowing discord. Though there has long been tension surrounding the rights of queer and trans people in this country, following the 2016 election these have seemed to come to a fever pitch, no doubt exacerbated by this highly orchestrated effort.