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U.S. Senate Reports Examine Russia's Swaying Of U.S. Voters In 2016

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Two reports produced for the U.S. Senate document the far-reaching influence campaign run by Russian operatives to sway U.S. voters' opinions during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

The reports, released on December 17, were prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of the leading congressional panels investigating how Russia sought to influence the election that was won by President Donald Trump.

Examining millions of postings to Twitter and Facebook, videos on YouTube, photographs on Instagram, and other social-media content, the reports are among the most comprehensive look to date at how Russians harnessed high-tech tools to spread misinformation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman disputed the accuracy of the reports, saying on December 18 that the claims they contained were "absolutely baseless" but providing no information to support that assertion.

The U.S. intelligence community concluded in January 2017 that Moscow favored Trump over his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, and used computer hacking as well as propaganda and social media to influence voter sentiments.

One of the reports provided new details about how Russians working at a St. Petersburg company called the Internet Research Agency set up fake personas and used media like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to spread misinformation, sow doubts, pump up support for Trump, and denigrate Clinton.

Commonly known as the Russian "troll farm," the Internet Research Agency is reportedly financed by Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. He and 12 other people were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in February on charges including bank fraud, conspiracy, and identity theft.

"What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party -- and specifically Donald Trump," said the report, whose details were first published by The Washington Post.

That report was compiled by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and a network analysis firm called Graphika.

Many of the social-media posts examined by the two reports focused on how Russia-sponsored content sought to inflame views of conservatives on issues like immigration and gun rights.

The second report was prepared by researchers for New Knowledge, Columbia University, and Canfield Research, and focused on how Russian operatives targeted African-American and other minority voters -- many of whom lean Democratic -- and tried to sow doubt about the U.S. electoral system and spread misinformation about things like voting times.

The Internet Research Agency "created an expansive cross-platform media mirage targeting the Black community, which shared and cross-promoted authentic Black media to create an immersive influence ecosystem," the report said.

The two reports highlighted how the Internet Research Agency spread its messages not only via Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, but also other platforms including Tumblr, Pinterest, YouTube, Reddit, Vine and Google+.

"Throughout its multi-year effort, the Internet Research Agency exploited divisions in our society by leveraging vulnerabilities in our information ecosystem. They exploited social unrest and human cognitive biases. The divisive propaganda Russia used to influence American thought and steer conversations for over three years wasn’t always objectively false," the New Knowledge report said.

"It was designed to exploit societal fractures, blur the lines between reality and fiction, erode our trust in media entities and the information environment, in government, in each other, and in democracy itself. This campaign pursued all of those objectives with innovative skill, scope, and precision," it said.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that the reports attempted to blame Russia for social tensions in the United States, but that they included no proof of Russian involvement.

"I can say again that we again disagree, we consider this absolutely baseless," Peskov told reporters in a regular conference call on December 18.

"The Russian state, the Russian government had nothing to do and has nothing to do with any interference," in U.S. elections, he added. He did not provide any specific information to support his assertion or disprove the findings.

The reports examined data and content only from the 2016 election cycle, through the middle of 2017. They do not concern the more recent congressional midterm election held last month.

A White House-ordered report on whether the November vote was influenced by foreign actors is due to be released by a collection of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies on December 21.

With reporting by Reuters, TASS, and Interfax
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