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Donald Trump and the Russia memes you need to see

These are just some of the Machiavellian social media posts spread by Russian trolls throughout the US as recently as last year.

Conservative and liberal memes were disseminated to more than 100 million Americans via fake accounts, which used subtle manipulation to build audiences and sway their support towards Donald Trump.

Two reports this week have shown just how sophisticated the hacking campaign really was, targeting specific demographics and persuading people to take action in real life — from protests to donations to how they voted (or didn’t).

In particular, the reports exposed how African-American communities — which are predominantly Democrat — were targeted with posts aiming to increase their sense of alienation and discourage them from voting.

Disturbingly genuine-looking memes and real social posts were made to go viral for the hackers’ sinister purposes of meddling in US elections.

media_cameraThe most popular of the overtly pro-Trump memes posted on conservative and anti-immigrant groups.
media_cameraThe posts were often aimed at religious Facebook users, and explicitly attacked Hillary Clinton.
media_cameraThe genuine-looking memes were created by Russian trolls with a deep understanding of American culture.


The most straightforward of the memes collected for the report by New Knowledge, Columbia University and Canfield Research showed open support for Mr Trump, attacked Hillary Clinton and were usually shared on right-wing groups.

The most popular Facebook post capitalised on mistrust for the Muslim community and said the Republican candidate would enforce an existing ban on sharia law on US soil. Another linked the Trump campaign to Jesus and Clinton campaign to Satan.

On the page “Being Patriotic”, posts started “Hillary Clinton will eliminate the free speech rights of anyone who gets in her way”, “Hillary is our enemy” and “Hillary Clinton is a liar. Like if you agree”.

media_cameraThe sophisticated campaigns targeted social media users identified as pro-gun or ex-military.

Others read, “I wish I had a time machine so I could go back to November 8 and vote for Trump again!” and “This is the last year of Obama’s presidency. Like and share if that makes you happy!”

The Russians even used PayPal to take donations and sell political merchandise, including “I SUPPORT AMERICAN LAW ENFORCEMENT” T-shirts.

One Instagram post claimed that Special Counsel Robert Mueller — head of the Russia probe — had worked in the past with “radical Islamic groups”.

media_cameraMany of the memes had an apolitical, positive message and were used to build trust.
media_cameraSome posts were disseminated to stoke anti-establishment sentiment among African-Americans.
media_cameraThe Internet Research Agency manipulated black Americans to carry out its work in real life.


Even more insidious are the memes that seem to spread a positive, apolitical message, but were used to reinforce the target audience’s cultural or religious point of view. This helped build a loyal following for the convincingly American fake accounts, in preparation for political messaging.

The Russians reached 126 million people on Facebook, posted 10.4 million tweets on Twitter, uploaded more than 1000 YouTube videos and reached at least 20 million users on Instagram.

One post circulated by Russian Instagram account Blackstagram was an anti-racism advert from black-owned footwear company named Kahmune, which gained more than 250,000 likes.

The Russian troll organisation Internet Research Agency (IRA) created at least 30 Facebook pages dedicated to black activism and empowerment.

One post on IRA Facebook page Black Matters showed black children dressed in doctor’s uniforms to encourage ambition, while others shared authentic video footage of police brutality against African-Americans — exploiting real issues for political advantage.

The reports show the Russian troll farm attempted voter suppression of black communities on every platform, from Pinterest to Tumblr, encouraging election boycotts and spreading false information on how to vote.

The Congressional Black Caucus said in a statement this was particularly concerning because “black voter turnout declined in 2016 — for the first time in 20 years”.

media_cameraThe Russian troll farms mocked the idea of their own existence.


What is particularly disturbing is how the sophisticated Russian operation even disseminated jokes mocking the idea that they could even exist.

“Everyone I don’t like is A Russian Hacker,” read one meme showing Ms Clinton.

Another showed a female driver telling a police officer: “IT’S NOT MY FAULT OFFICER, THE RUSSIANS HACKED MY SPEEDOMETER.”

The reports by New Knowledge and Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project with network analysis firm Graphika show the misinformation campaign did not end after the 2016 presidential election.

In the six months after the election, IRA redoubled its efforts on the younger and less policed Instagram, generating 187 million comments, likes and other user reactions — more than Twitter and Facebook combined.

“Instagram’s appeal is that’s where the kids are, and that seems to be where the Russians went,” Oxford research head Philip Howard told the Washington Post.

California Democrat Adam Schiff, incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the problem was by no means resolved.

“I think all the platforms remain keenly vulnerable and I don’t have the confidence yet companies have invested the resources and people power necessary to deal with the scope of the problem,” he said.

media_cameraThe IRA also spread mistrust of the mainstream media.


The IRA was adept at stoking tensions to infuriate ordinary Americans and pit social groups against each other.

The New Knowledge report shows it was particularly skilled at sowing discontent among black audiences, particularly around the height of Black Lives Matter movement in 2016 and the NFL national anthem controversy in 2017.

It set up accounts promoting merchandise that would anger conservative or religious groups, such as “LGBT-positive sex toys”.

It created Google ads, fake websites and PayPal accounts to manipulate users into real-life marches, and tricked people into helping by using personal information against them or promoting their business on its platforms.

“We hope that these reports provide clarity for the American people and policymakers alike, and make clear the sweeping scope of the operation and the long game being played,” said New Knowledge research director Renee DiResta.

The research presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee reflects other reports about repressive regimes harnessing the power of social media in countries including Iran and Myanmar.

While the social networks mentioned in the report said they were strengthening their defences, they may increasingly be weaponised, particularly those that are smaller but with highly engaged audiences.

Referendums have proved a popular target in Spain, Britain and Macedonia.

Researchers warned that we must watch how vulnerable populations are manipulated, at a time where political debate has never been so fraught.

Originally published as Chilling Trump memes you need to see

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