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Facebook refused to hand over location data on users who engaged with Russian trolls: Study author

An activist wearing a Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg mask stands in front of Portcullis House in Westminster as an international committee of parliamentarians met for a hearing on the impact of disinformation on democracy in London, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

More than 30 million social media users engaged with targeted posts and ads generated by Russia’s state-supported Internet Research Agency (IRA) leading up to, during, and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a new study finds.

The study, published by Oxford University and Graphika, finds that between 2015 and 2017, social media users on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube shared IRA-generated content focused on divisive political and social issues by liking, reacting to, and commenting on the posts.

While ads purchased on Facebook were targeted at U.S. populations, no data was provided to identify the location of users who engaged with targeted ads or organic posts.

“We don’t know who they are because Facebook didn’t provide this kind of data,” Dr. Mimie Liotsiou, a postdoctoral researcher from Oxford Internet Institute and one of the study’s authors, told Yahoo Finance. “That would be really useful to have. We did request richer data. There are ways to make that information possible, of course, without exposing any particular user’s name.”

“30.9 million shares, more than 38 million likes”

The report is one of two comprehensive studies undertaken by third parties to examine the reach of Russia’s campaign to interfere with the 2016 election.

A second study by Austin, Texas-based New Knowledge made similar conclusions, finding that the IRA conducted a “sweeping and sustained social influence operation consisting of various coordinated disinformation tactics aimed directly at US citizens.”

The tactics, including efforts to suppress votes of African-American voters, were designed to exert political influence and exacerbate social divisions in U.S. culture, according to the study. Like the Oxford study, researchers said data handed over by the social media companies “lacked core components that would have provided a fuller and more actionable picture.”

Data examined in the studies was provided to the research groups after the social media companies provided the information to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Other data used in the Oxford study and not provided by the committee had already been made public.

“A lot of the focus has been on ads,” Liotsiou said. “Besides the ads, there were so many more organic Facebook posts, and those got so much more engagement.”

According to the study, the five most shared and most liked Facebook posts dealt with pro-gun ownership, anti-immigration sentiment, police violence against African Americans, anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment, and anti-Obama pro-Trump sentiment.

“We know from the data, Facebook posts alone, got 30.9 million shares, more than 38 million likes, 5.3 million emoji reactions, and more than 3 million comments,” the study stated.

As for paid Facebook ads, the IRA spent a total of $73,711 between 2015 and 2017. Facebook’s Instagram platform had even more engagement than Facebook, the study found.

“They kept ramping up even after the election”

The data provided showed the number of times a particular state was targeted by an IRA ad on Facebook or Instagram, with Missouri receiving the largest number of targeted ads, at 265.

The study found increased activity on the date of the election, as well as on dates leading up to important events on the U.S. political calendar, such as candidate debates and primary elections. The researchers were surprised to see activity peaks continuing after the election, including in December 2016 when it was announced that the U.S. planned to launch an investigation into Russian election interference.

“They kept ramping up even after the election,” Liotsiou said.

“IRA posts on Instagram and Facebook increased substantially after the election, with Instagram seeing the greatest increase in IRA activity,” the study said.

“An important finding that should be stressed is that they were not just targeting one end of the political spectrum, they were actually targeting both liberals and conservatives along divisive issues and hot-button issues.”

The study’s authors also note that IRA posts contained links to Medium, PayPal, Reddit, Tumblr, and Pinterest, and while they concluded that the IRA heavily used YouTube links, the authors say the Google-owned company failed to provide enough data for thorough analysis.

“The YouTube data provided to the SSCI was remarkably scarce and only included video files, without the context or metadata necessary to be comparable to the other datasets,” the authors wrote.

According to the report, engagement rates that increased after the election correspond to posts covering public policy issues, national security, and issues pertinent to younger voters.

Alexis Keenan is a New York-based reporter for Yahoo Finance. She previously produced live news for CNN and is a former litigation attorney. Follow her on Twitter at @alexiskweed

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