Internet | October 10, 2017 11:06 am

How Russia Used ‘Culture Hacking’ in the 2016 U.S. Election

The New York Times examines Russian internet strategies that tapped into American anger.

Elevated view of Moscow Kremlin with Spasskaya Clock Tower and Saint Basil's Cathedral. (Getty Images)

One of the most powerful weapons Russian agents used to reshape American politics were feelings and misinformation that real Americans were already posting about on social media, according to the New York Times.

The Times examined hundreds of posts that were used in a Russian propaganda campaign for the Kremlin, which are now “believed to be at the center of a far-reaching Russian program to influence the 2016 presidential election.”

Instead of constructing fake grassroots support behind their ideas, the Russians tried to cultivate and influence real political movements, according to the Times. They created pages with names like “Being Patriotic,” “Secured Borders,” and “Blacktivist.” The pages took descriptions and videos of police beatings from genuine YouTube and Facebook accounts and reposted them. One group posted content highlighting discrimination against Muslims, another rallied Americans against proposals to expand refugee settlements in the U.S.

The Times reports that the Russians also paid Facebook to promote these posts, so they were placed into the feeds of American Facebook users, which helped them test what content would circulate the best among different audiences.

Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, called this “cultural hacking.” He said they are using “systems that were already set up by these platforms to increase engagement. They’re feeding outrage — and it’s easy to do, because outrage and emotion is how people share.”

They also utilized what social media does best — user engagement. Facebook pushes people to interact in groups where there is a common interest or cause. LinkedIn is geared towards people creating articles and other content, which the Russian campaign also utilized, according to the Times. 

Lawmakers are currently debating tighter regulations for companies like Facebook. But Russia’s Facebook pages prove how difficult it will be to “purge social media networks of foreign influence,” writes The Times, or even try to stop the covert propaganda campaigns on carried out on social platforms by Russia, China, and other countries.