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How Russia’s fake social media accounts propelled Donald Trump

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More than a month after Facebook and Twitter announced they had identified hundreds of fake accounts and thousands of ads secretly run by Russian state agents, the American public is still largely in the dark as to what the ads and accounts contained, what messages they pushed, or even how they framed policy debates and viewed presidential candidates.

We know, for instance, that these fake Russian accounts offered $100,000 to Facebook for approximately 3,000 ads — and potentially thousands more — while specifically targeting swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin. When Facebook revealed the ad sales to congressional investigators (after dismissing concerns in the lead-up to the election), Virginia Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said these accounts were but “the tip of the iceberg.” We also know that Facebook, which says 10 million users viewed these Russian ads, has uncovered evidence linking at least some of the accounts to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. That notorious troll firm kept some 400 employees busy managing assorted misleading social media accounts, budgeted at approximately $400,000 per month as of 2015. As ABC News revealed, certain employees within the Internet Research Agency would pose as Americans, working 12-hour shifts to both lead conversations and, more broadly, amplify divisions and tensions already extant.

Facebook and Twitter, however, have refused to yield to growing pressure to release the content of the ads and accounts to the public. The companies revealed the material they uncovered to Congress, but have declined to detail how these Russian actors tried to stir outrage, confusion, and misinformation on some of the world’s largest social media platforms.

But in examining what’s been revealed about the social media accounts secretly run by Russian actors, a handful of broad themes emerge. Much of the media coverage has been piecemeal, and has failed to publish the actual posts and ads involved.

ThinkProgress, however, analyzed previous reporting to match those eyewitness stories with the specific social media accounts and pages in question, many of them available through caches, to examine the substance of the allegations — to watch the fake news in action as it crept across social media. The clearest theme to emerge from the Russian accounts exhumed so far is something many following the 2016 president election will recognize: an obvious and sustained effort to support Donald Trump. The information that’s come to light since the election —  the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence; analysis of coverage from Russian state media sources — parallels this finding.

While the specific dates of certain material from these fake accounts remain unclear, certain posts have come to light that, for instance, praised Trump for his immigration policy and for Trump’s plans to unwind many of the previous administration’s legislative achievements. One of the accounts, “Secured Borders” posted a popular, eclipse-related meme comparing the current and former presidents: “I hope pretty soon Trump will eclipse Obama … totally! It’s time to erase the so called legacy of the most race-baiting, corrupt, communist, anti-American POTUS ever.” Another, posted after the election, called Trump’s policies “correct.”

One post, uncovered by ABC News and running after the election, featured Trump as Santa Claus, with Ted Cruz lurking as an elf in the background. Hillary Clinton appears trapped in a snow-globe on the president’s desk.

(CREDIT: ABC NEWS)

Elsewhere, the pro-secession “Heart of Texas” page, run by Russian actors, trumpeted post-election support for police officers backing Trump.

Former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka followed “Tea Party News,” another Russian account that offered a stream of Trump quotes and praise for the Republican candidate. As Talking Points Memo noted, the account not only promoted Trump’s campaign events, but further “offered to soothe the hurt feelings of conservatives[.]”

Beyond memes and online comments, it’s also come to light that Russian actors attempted to organize on-the-ground rallies in the U.S.; in some cases, those rallies actually happened. The most prominent account uncovered thus far that pushed rallies was the “Being Patriotic” page. The Daily Beast found that that account garnered more than 200,000 followers and had “the strongest activist bent of any of the suspected Russian Facebook election pages that have so far emerged.” Not only did the page, along with its related Twitter account, hawk explicitly anti-Clinton events, including one entitled “Down With Hillary!”, but it also attempted to host rallies in Pennsylvania and New York, including “Miners for Trump” demonstrations. (The attendant Twitter page, for good measure, carried a #NeverRomney hashtag.)

The most successful of these Russia-backed pro-Trump rallies, however, took place in Florida last August, in the lead-up to the election.

The “Florida Goes Trump!” rally garnered support from some of Trump’s most outspoken supporters in the state, including the recent chief of the Broward Republican Party, and it turned out dozens of supporters drawn in by the “Being Patriotic” page. As investigative website Bellingcat documented via social media, supporters gathered to chant and cheer their support for Trump, as well as “enthusiastically (but not quite in harmony) yell[ing] ‘lock her up’ about Hillary Clinton.”

Indeed, the “Florida Goes Trump!” efforts marry one of the most prominent themes of Russia’s Facebook fakery — helping inflate the Trump campaign — with another primary goal of the false accounts and ads: attacking Clinton and her supporters, and spreading memes and messaging undermining the Democratic candidate. After all, these Facebook and Twitter accounts weren’t exclusively about propelling Trump toward the White House. They were simultaneously meant to depress Clinton’s chances — and spread vitriol about her campaign along the way, as ThinkProgress will detail in the second installation of our series.

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