A group of independent researchers has found out that a coordinated black propaganda campaign targeting U.S. President Donald Trump has emerged in the popular social media platform, Instagram, in an effort to derail his reputation through “meme warfare.”
The current political climate and the advent of social networking and its growing popularity in becoming platforms for social discourse created an arena for personality political wars, as seen in recent elections around the world. The camp of President Trump allegedly used the same strategy during the 2016 elections to launch targeted and coordinated personality assassination against presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton in an attempt to sway public opinion against the Democrat standard bearer at that time.
Russians are said to have created spoofed accounts both in Facebook and Instagram and impersonated American citizens to influence public opinion in favor of President Trump. The study published by Italian analytics firm Ghost Data revealed that they had seen similar activities, but now targeting President Trump instead.
The firm said that the U.S. president is experiencing illicit attacks, albeit on a limited scale, with fake profiles impersonating Americal citizens to spread virulent anti-Trump narratives in a coordinated attack to derail the president. The researchers also opened the possibility that while they were able to uncover a small operation, it could also be part of something bigger.
“We have uncovered a small operation that is a very likely part of something bigger,” said Andrea Stroppa, the head of research at Ghost Data. “I get the feeling that someone out there is experimenting. Testing the waters. They know what they are doing.”
Facebook, the owner of Instagram, said to Reuters that they are already investigating the apparent violations of the social network’s Community Standards. They also have removed the profiles uncovered by the researchers. Interestingly, the company has been part of a highly publicized legislative inquiry on its role in the 2016 Russian intervention in the US elections.
The accounts that were removed were said to have violated rules of Instagram, such as using stolen images of other people and acting in tandem with other accounts to spew out vitriolic messages.
A spokesperson for Instagram told Reuters: “We are investigating the accounts in question and have already removed those that we’ve found to violate our policies. Accounts used to manipulate or mislead the public are not allowed on Instagram, and we will take action if we find additional violations.”
The researcher said that they were able to discover 52,000 accounts on Instagram, which were generally anti-Trump, using such hashtags as #impeachtrump. While most of them were genuine accounts owned by actual people, they also have uncovered 350 “suspicious accounts” that’s the main goal is specifically to overturn the U.S. president. Out of these, 19 accounts took the researchers interest by appearing to be interlinked and “waging incessant ‘memetic warfare,’ using multiple images and meme videos to attack Donald Trump and his administration.
There were already a total of 121,000 posts put out by all the 350 suspected account with more than 35.2 million “interactions” since October 2016, when they were first created. The researchers also found similarities and similar identifiable characteristics in the accounts, including their profile pictures. One block of five out of the smaller 19 subsets among all the suspicious accounts found by researchers was discovered to have been created on the same day last August, further supporting the thesis that these accounts are interlinked and could be part of a much bigger destabilization effort against the Republican leader.
“Their goal seems to be to infiltrate into (social media) networks that are much bigger,” said Stroppa.
U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, through an independent report published last December, said the Russian government’s Internet Research Agency created some 133 Instagram accounts in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and used them to try to propagate dangerous narratives against the U.S. political system.
Stroppa, while being suspicious, said that he had not found any evidence that would link the 19 accounts his team discovered to any form of Russian interference.
“What you can say is that this digital campaign against Trump uses some of the same methods that were used to attack Hilary Clinton in 2016,” he said.
While the study has a very tiny sample size against the total population of a billion Instagram users, Stroppa stressed that even a small number of accounts could destabilize a government structure if they will only be able to amplify their reach and make their messages heard by a lot of people.