According to a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Instagram was the Russian government’s most preferred method of manipulating voters during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Elections. Although it was known that Russian hackers had utilised social media to disseminate their propaganda during the elections, it wasn’t known that Instagram, in particular, had played that big of a role.
More specifically, the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) received more interaction and voter engagement through its Instagram posts. According to the three bodies (Canfield Research, Columbia University, and New Knowledge) that conducted the report for the Senate Intelligence Committee, Instagram produced an astounding 187 million interactions, leaving Facebook (77 million) and Twitter (73 million) behind.
The research team analysed data from 2015 to 2018. They discovered that IRA created false accounts that posted messages criticising the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton in favour of Donald Trump. Around 40 percent of the false accounts gathered 10,000 followers, with 12 accounts each achieving over 100,000, and the biggest attracting over 300,000 followers.
The above number suggests that the image- and video-driven Instagram captures people’s attention easier. The application, which uses hashtags to categorise and recommend material that fits users’ interests, could be the ideal ground to attempt an institutional shift in people’s perspectives.
Jonathan Albright, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism Digital Forensics Initiative — which is part of the famous Columbia Journalism School — said that Instagram benefited from Facebook’s advertising infrastructure. Instagram “has Facebook’s sophisticated targeted audiences behind it. And it’s hard to research and messy. It actually functions as information distribution more like Twitter — it has most of the power of Twitter and a lot less of the transparency,” he added.
Hitherto, Facebook hadn’t been transparent about Russian manipulation of Instagram during the elections. When, last November, Facebook officials were asked during a Congressional hearing about Instagram’s role in the Russian vote manipulation schemes, they responded that Instagram had been largely unaffected. They argued that the lack of a “share” option protected it since material posted on the application was harder to go viral.
“Although the Facebook operation received more attention in the mainstream press, more content was created on Instagram, and overall Instagram engagement exceeded that of Facebook,” concludes the report.
The report also indicates that Instagram’s effectiveness in reaching and affecting voters has made it a go-to option for Russian efforts. Alongside the U.S. Presidential Elections, the international community has accused Russia of interfering with the Brexit, Scottish Independence, and Catalonia Independence referenda, and the French and German elections.