In June 2017, some eight months after the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, Kremlin operatives running a digital interference campaign in American politics scored a viral success with a post on Instagram.
The post appeared on the account @blackstagram__, which was in fact being run by the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll farm that U.S. authorities say orchestrated an online campaign to boost Trump’s candidacy in 2016. It racked up 254,000 likes and nearly 7,000 comments—huge numbers for the Kremlin campaign.
But oddly, the post contained no political content.
Instead, it repurposed an ad for a women’s shoe, with a photo of women of different skin tones wearing the same strappy high heel in different colors. The caption pitched the shoes as a symbol of racial equality: “All the tones are nude! Get over it!”
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.
That campaign sought to bring Russian political goals into the mainstream, exacerbate and inflame divisions in American society, and blur the line between truth and fiction, New Knowledge’s report concludes.
Amid the intense discussion of Russian interference in the 2016 election, investigators probing that campaign had devoted relatively little attention to Instagram until now. But following their exposure in 2016 and early 2017, the IRA’s operatives shifted resources to Instagram, where their content often outperformed its postings on Facebook. (Instagram is owned by Facebook.)
Of the 133 Instagram accounts created by the IRA, @blackstagram__ was arguably its most successful, with more than 300,000 followers. Its June 2017 ad for the shoe, made by Kahmune, was the most widely circulated post dreamed up by the Kremlin’s operatives—from a total of some 116,000. (The shoe continues to be marketed by Kahmune. Company officials did not respond to questions from Foreign Policy.)
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.”
Special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of investigators have secured indictments against the Internet Research Agency’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and a dozen of its employees.
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.”
Monday’s report, which was published alongside another by researchers at the University of Oxford and the network analysis firm Graphika, is likely to increase scrutiny of social media platforms. The New Knowledge report accuses technology firms of possibly misleading Congress and says companies have not been sufficiently transparent in providing data related to the Russian campaign.