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A new study conducted by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project found that “low quality political information” and “ideologically extreme” junk news flooded 12 battleground states in the run-up to US Election Day, strategically targeting pivotal voters before and after November 8.
The study is the first to document on a large scale how propaganda and conspiratorial information was “strategically disseminated” throughout the country before the election. The researchers said they based their analysis on a dataset of 22,117,221 tweets collected November 1-11 that contained hashtags related to politics and came from users with traceable locations.
They found that “junk news, characterized by ideological extremism” and “misinformation” was shared more than expected among Twitter users in swing states like Florida, New Hampshire, Virginia, Michigan, and Ohio during that 10-day period.
“Many of the swing states getting highly concentrated doses of polarizing content were also among those with large numbers of votes in the Electoral College,” the researchers wrote.
The Oxford report adds to a growing list of questions about whether Russia had any help in deciding whom to target during its meddling in the election.
The possibility was first raised by congressional investigators like Rep. Adam Schiff earlier this month, after Facebook said in a statement that about 25% of ads purchased by Russians during the election “were geographically targeted.”
Many analysts have said they find it difficult to believe that foreign entities would have had the kind of granular knowledge of American politics necessary to target specific demographics and voting precincts.
As Facebook has faced heavy scrutiny over its laissez-faire approach to information-sharing and ad sales, however, Twitter has remained largely silent. The company hasn’t yet addressed questions about how instrumental automated accounts – known as “bots” – were in spreading fake news and Russian propaganda.
The ability to build those bots anonymously allowed the Russians to spread misinformation on a large scale with virtually no effort. Twitter often shuts down these bot accounts but as a matter of policy never reveals details about why the accounts were terminated.
Russia’s influence operations are not new, nor are they confined to the US. But as James Comey, then the FBI director, and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers testified in March, the operations intensified noticeably in the run-up to the 2016 election.
At one point, Russia’s infamous troll factories were most likely being paid by the Kremlin to spread propaganda favoring Donald Trump on social media. Facebook believes that one of those factories, the Internet Research Agency, was behind the bulk of inauthentic accounts that purchased the divisive political ads during the election.
Twitter representatives testified behind closed doors before the House and Senate intelligence committees on Thursday. Both panels have invited Twitter and Facebook to be interviewed in public this fall about the Russian influence campaign, but the companies have yet to accept.