A sophisticated Russian propaganda effort helped fuel the spread of fake news during the election cycle, the Washington Post reported.
Two groups of independent researchers found that Russia employed thousands of botnets, human internet “trolls” and networks of Web sites and social media accounts to inject false content into online political talk and amplify posts from right-wing sites.
“They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests,” said Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who co-authored a report about Russian propaganda. “This was their standard mode during the Cold War. The problem is that this was hard to do before social media.”
A similar report from PropOrNot, provided to the Post, identifies more than 200 websites that routinely pushed Russian propaganda to at least 15 million Americans, and found that false stories pushed on Facebook were viewed more than 213 million times.
Some stories originated from RT and Sputnik, state-funded Russian information services that are more akin to traditional news sites but sometimes include false or misleading articles.
The coverage was overwhelmingly favorable to Donald Trump, and some of the most notable examples of fake news garnering major traffic online centered on Hillary Clinton’s health, protesters that were allegedly paid to interrupt Trump events, and fears about vote tampering.
“The way that this propaganda apparatus supported Trump was equivalent to some massive amount of a media buy,” said the executive director of PropOrNot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity with the Post. “It was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trump’s campaign.”
Russia is also believed to be behind widespread hacks of Democratic organizations and individuals, including the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, whose emails were published by WikiLeaks.
In the wake of the election, fake news and its spread on social media has come into the spotlight. President Obama denounced the attention garnered by false information last week, saying: “If we are not serious about facts and what’s true and what’s not … if we can’t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems.”