How Russia Hacked U.S. Politics With Instagram Marketing – Foreign Policy
While the message itself was not aimed at swaying voters in any direction, researchers now believe it served another purpose for the Russian group: It boosted the reach of its account, likely won it new followers, and tried to establish the account’s bona fides as an authentic voice for the black community.
That advertising pitch was revealed in a report released Monday by the Senate Intelligence Committee and produced by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge. The report provides the most comprehensive look to date at the Kremlin’s attempt to boost Trump’s candidacy and offers a surprising insight regarding that campaign: Moscow’s operatives operated much like digital marketers, making use of Instagram to reach a huge audience.
By blending marketing tactics with political messaging, the Internet Research Agency (IRA) established a formidable online presence in the run-up to the 2016 election (and later), generating 264 million total engagements—a measure of activity such as liking and sharing content—and building a media ecosystem across Facebook and Instagram.
The authors of the report believe @blackstagram__ served as a vehicle for Kremlin propaganda targeting the American black community, skillfully adopting the language of Instagram, where viral marketing schemes exist side by side with artfully arranged photographs of toast.
As Americans streamed to the polls on Nov. 8, 2016, @blackstagram__ offered its contribution to the Kremlin’s campaign to depress turnout, borrowing a line from a Michael Jackson song to tell African-Americans that their votes didn’t matter: “Think twice before you vote. All I wanna say is that they don’t really care about us. #Blacktivist #hotnews.”
While the effect of the IRA’s coordinated campaign to depress voter turnout is difficult to assess, the evidence of the group’s online influence is stark. Of its 133 Instagram accounts, 12 racked up more than 100,000 followers—the typical threshold for being considered an online “influencer” in the world of digital marketing. Around 50 amassed more than 10,000 followers, making them what marketers call “micro-influencers.”
These accounts made savvy use of hashtags, built relationships with real people, promoted merchandise, and targeted niche communities. The IRA’s most popular Instagram accounts included pages devoted to veterans’ issues (@american.veterans), American Christianity (@army_of_jesus), and feminism (@feminism_tag).
In a measure of the agency’s creativity, @army_of_jesus appears to have been launched in 2015 as a meme account featuring Kermit the Frog. It then switched subjects and began exclusively posting memes related to the television show The Simpsons. By January 2016, the account had amassed a significant following and reached its final iteration with a post making extensive use of religious hashtags: ““#freedom #love #god #bible #trust #blessed #grateful.” It later posted memes comparing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton to Satan.
“The Internet Research Agency operated like a digital marketing agency: develop a brand (both visual and voice), build presences on all channels across the entire social ecosystem, and grow an audience with paid ads as well as partnerships, influencers, and link-sharing,” the New Knowledge report concludes. “Instagram was perhaps the most effective platform.”