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Instagram Won’t Pull These Racist, Violent, Russian-Inspired Accounts

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American racists are reusing some of the ugliest elements of Russia’s election interference operation.

Memes published by some of the worst Kremlin-backed trolls of the 2016 campaign are being echoed online by American neo-Confederates. The Russian accounts, overseen by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA), have since been taken down. But American parrot accounts running some of the same racist crap—and worse—are still live on Instagram, an investigation by The Daily Beast and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab found. At least one of these live accounts claims to belong to a Russian network persona.

The accounts—which hail the Confederate flag as “Protecting Us From Tyranny Since 1861” and claim that “The Civil War was not about slavery”—highlight the blurry and politically charged boundaries between domestic and foreign trolling. The American racists didn’t need Russia’s help to hate, of course. But the Kremlin supplied a well of ready-made memes for lazy neo-Confederates to post online.

“I think the similarities between these accounts and those of the IRA highlights how complex the IRA operations around elections have been. It is possible that memes originally created by the IRA have found new or renewed life on social media,” Kanishk Karan, a research associate at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, told The Daily Beast. “The way they camouflaged within the political conversations is also a fascinating detail: We’ve reached a point where it is harder to verify whether an online social or political movement is astroturfed or from grassroots participants.”

When Russian trolls went hunting for targets and content during the 2016 election, race was their “preferred target,” according to a Senate Intelligence Committee study.

South United, a Russian Facebook and Instagram persona that featured in the IRA’s 2016 meddling campaign, took this theme and ran with it, plastering followers with all kinds of racist, bigoted appeals to the Confederacy.

During the 2016 election, South United was one of the “10 most active IRA-administered Facebook pages,” according to a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. It was also undoubtedly Russian. The ads that South United ran were paid for in rubles using a Russian payment processor, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller cited the page as the work of the IRA in a 2018 indictment of 13 IRA employees and officials.

Some of the images published by South United included racist memes of former President Obama dressed as a Nazi with the caption “Don’t support illegals, support own people.” One meme published by the IRA’s account showed a picture of Black Lives Matter protesters next to the question “Black lives or black thugs?” These memes can still be found on active Instagram accounts that pose as state chapters of the original South United page.

The accounts also published the same racist and neo-Confederate images originally published by Russian trolls, such as one with a Confederate flag middle finger bidding viewers to “Say hi to the Yanks” and another wondering, “How many likes can this battle flag get?” The IRA’s South United watermark can still be viewed on these posts.

It’s unclear when the IRA’s South United Facebook and Instagram accounts were first created, but Twitter users were reposting material from the accounts as early as November 2015. Facebook ad data shows that the IRA’s @South_United Instagram page started running ads that same month. By contrast, the earliest post from among the dozen American-run echo-chamber mimic accounts was in May 2016.

In August of that year, the operators of some of these state chapter Instagram accounts also promoted a Russian-organized pro-Trump rally. As The Daily Beast first reported, the IRA announced a “patriotic state-wide flash mob” in support of Trump’s candidacy on a separate Facebook page it ran called “Being Patriotic” using an image of Hillary Clinton in a prison cell. Two of the state chapter Instagram accounts, @south_united_fl and @south_united_il, promoted the rally using the Hillary image taken from an IRA-run Facebook page.

The accounts still live on Instagram also share considerable overlap with the original Russian page in other ways. All of the accounts, for instance, claim to be state chapters of the original South United page, with names like “South United Iowa” and “South United Tennessee.” They all use a similar logo to the IRA Facebook account, and some posts even use memes with stilted phrases like “History is written By victor…” and “Can it be any simple?”—language reminiscent of the non-native English used in some IRA propaganda memes.

Some of the accounts on Instagram even claim to be directly related to the original Russian page. “South United Louisiana” says it’s “the South United page for the state of Louisiana,” while the “South United Georgia” page says it’s the “@south_united page made for the great people of Georgia.” (The latter was taken down at some point prior to The Daily Beast’s discovery, although the Louisiana page remains live.)

The parrot accounts used not just IRA memes but other inflammatory content from outside the South United network. The accounts reposted a variety of memes along the same lines of Southern political and cultural resentments, including pro-Confederacy, pro-gun, anti-Islam, and anti-Hillary Clinton content. In one particularly egregious example, the @south_united_florida account posted an image of four bodies with gunshot wounds to the heads and the words “King Barrak, Queen Michelle, Usurper Hillary, George Soros” above each corpse.

The Daily Beast made repeated attempts to contact the owners of the Instagram accounts still up but received no reply.

Nathan Gleicher—head of security policy at Facebook, which owns Instagram—said the accounts, for now, haven’t violated company policies aimed at helping users distinguish between “inauthentic behavior and authentic speech.” So they’re staying online.

“When we take down influence operations, we take action based on the behavior we see on our platforms, not the content they post,” Gleicher told The Daily Beast. “We’ve seen these manipulation campaigns reuse content created by innocent people. Most of the content shared by coordinated manipulation campaigns isn’t provably false, and would in fact be acceptable political discourse if shared by real people. That’s why content alone is not a strong signal for identifying these operations.” To disinformation researchers at the DFRLab, the Instagram accounts that are still live show signs of being dedicated to amplifying IRA material.

DFRLab researchers found evidence that someone may have used engagement-for-hire services to interact with the American Instagram amplification accounts. A few accounts with defunct jewelry and crystal storefronts posted generic comments on the state chapter network accounts’ images.

Not that the IRA needed much help in amplifying its neo-Confederate content. The IRA’s South United Facebook page reached a height of 138,000 followers and harvested a total of 1.5 million likes and 2.3 million shares before it was shut down in 2017. Of the dozen American state chapter Instagram accounts, none have more than 1,000 followers and most have just a few dozen.

Facebook told The Daily Beast that the parrot network accounts appeared to be authentically American. “It appears that these accounts belong to real people in the United States whose content was likely mimicked by these operations we removed in the past,” Gleicher told The Daily Beast.

DFRLab researchers found some evidence that the IRA’s neo-Confederate persona may have copied organic memes created by authentic American bigots outside the state chapter network. The IRA’s South United Instagram account published a picture of a Confederate stick person attacking an LGBT pride flag stick person in late 2016—a meme copied from an unrelated American Instagram account posted in 2015.

In other words, the Russians copied the American racists. And the racists copied the Russians. It’s a circle of hate.

During 2016, the Kremlin’s sophisticated understanding of the United States led its propaganda to amplify it. They invented memes to exploit racism, secure in the knowledge that the memes would find wide purchase in America. But while the larger social-media firms purged the accounts that promoted them, the memes have achieved exactly what the Russians wanted: persistence.

And sadly, material aimed squarely at Confederate sympathizers apparently remains a popular topic for Russian trolls: Facebook announced just two months ago that it had removed dozens of Instagram accounts that originated in Russia, some of which published pro-Confederate material targeted at American audiences.

INSTAGRAM

Instagram’s VP of Product Provides Insight into its Hidden Like Count Test

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Instagram’s hidden like counts test has been a source of much debate since the platform first announced the trial back in April last year.

Why would Instagram do this? What will the impacts be on measurement? Will it cause people to post more or less as a result?

Thus far, Instagram hasn’t provided many answers, but this week, we got a little more insight into the thinking behind the test, and its current impacts, via Vishal Shah, Instagram’s VP of Product, who took part in an interview on ‘The Social Media Geekout’ podcast, which is hosted by social media expert Matt Navarra.

The interview is well worth a listen for anyone looking to get a better understanding of Instagram’s internal thinking, on many aspects, but on the hidden like counts test specifically, Shah provides an overview, and some explanations to help clarify where they’re at. 

Shah first notes that the origin of the hidden like count test came from internal feedback from its various teams.

“This one came from the team that works on interactions and feed, so this team is incentivized to try to drive more likes [and] more comments, but in all of their user research, they heard so loud and clear that people felt like the public like count was a very high area of pressure for them when they produce content on Instagram […] the act of expression itself is what we cared about, not the validation, or perceived validation, that a public like count gets people.” 

Shah says that when Instagram was first launched, a public Like count made sense (“that was sort of a norm at the time”), but now, particularly when you consider the rise of the Stories format, public engagement metrics are no longer the things that drive behavior.

“If people were deleting the stuff that they posted to feed because they felt like they were competing with themselves [or] they were competing with public figures and celebrities and influencers that they felt they could never be on an even playing field, we thought this was one of the most effective ways to even that playing field and remove some of that pressure for performing.”

Shah says this is one of the biggest changes that they have ever sought to make, and the reason that it’s taking so long to test is because Instagram’s internal team needs more time to be able to measure the true impact of the update before moving ahead. With such a significant change, Shah says, some shifts in behavior will occur in the short-term, but to really understand the behavioral effects, you need a longer time frame to see whether it’s actually altering usage.

And while he doesn’t go into depth about the results they’ve seen thus far, Shah does provide this little indicator of what’s happening:

“We knew going into this that we would likely have to trade-off some amount of engagement to do this work, and we are very comfortable doing that if in the end it makes people more comfortable expressing themselves and sharing on Instagram.”

That would likely suggest that they are seeing a reduction in post engagement in regions where like counts have been removed.

That would align with a recent study by HypeAuditor, which found that total like counts have fallen for influencers operating within the regions where the test is active.

HypeAuditor hidden like counts report

That test is confined to influencers only, but based on Shah’s comments, this may well be indicative of the broader trends – that people are, in fact, seeing less engagement on their posts, overall, as a result of like counts being removed.

What Shah doesn’t note, however, is how Instagram is measuring the relative success, or not, of the test.

How will Instagram decide if it’s ultimately a success or a failure, and what metrics is it looking to improve as a result of the trial?

If there’s a reduction in the amount of people deleting their posts, is that an indicator of success?

One recent report suggested that the actual aim of Instagram’s hidden likes test is less about user wellbeing, as such, and more about getting users to post more often. CNBC reported last month that, according to three former Instagram employees, internal research at the company suggested that hiding like counts would “increase the number of posts people make to the service, by making them feel less self-conscious when their posts don’t get much engagement”.

That makes some sense, and as a side benefit, maybe it also reduces that performance pressure which Instagram is using as the main impetus for the change. Less pressure, more content – Instagram wins in the long term, and in that sense, it’s possible that increased post frequency per user is the key metric that Instagram is looking at in order to measure the ultimate success or failure of the trial.

Shah says they haven’t made a decision at this stage as to whether the test will be rolled out to all users, but he notes that they remain excited about the project, and that they will continue to push forward with the test.

In addition to this, Shah also discusses the development of Instagram’s ‘Threads’ messaging app, the expansion of messaging access to the desktop version, and the future of the app more broadly. Shah shares a lot of interesting notes – if you’re looking to get a better understanding of the platform and where it’s headed, you can (and should) check out the ‘Social Media Geekout’ podcast here.

So nothing concrete on the future of hidden like counts as yet, but it’s interesting to consider what these insights mean for the current impacts, as well as the motivations behind the actual implementation and success of the test.

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Instagram Gets New SloMo, Echo, and Duo Filters for Boomberang

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Facebook-owned Instagram on Saturday introduced three new options to share Boomerang Stories: SlowMo, Echo, and Duo, along with a new few feature to trim their length.

“Your Instagram camera gives you ways to express yourself and easily share what you’re doing, thinking or feeling with your friends. Boomerang is an iconic part of that, and one of the most beloved camera formats. Instagram is excited to expand on the creativity and give you new ways to use Boomerang to turn everyday moments into something fun and unexpected,” the company said in a statement.

The new filters are available in the Boomerang composer located in the Instagram Stories camera.

With SlowMo, as the name suggests, Boomerang videos are slowed to half their original speed. Echo creates a double vision effect, enhancing Boomerang and Duo, both speeds up and slows down Boomerang, adding a texturized effect.

It’s also possible to trim and adjust the length of recorded Boomerangs with the update.

The new effects come as an over-the-air (OTA) update.

To access these new effects, take a Boomerang as usual, open the Story camera, swipe over to “Boomerang” on the carousel, then tap the shutter button or hold it down and let go. Next, tap the infinity symbol along the top of the display to access the new effects.

Instagram recently launched new “Layout” feature that will allow users to include multiple photos in a single story.

With this, users now create their Stories with up to six different photos, although this new feature was already on third-party apps to create similar images.

A user just need to do is open the Stories camera inside Instagram and look for “Layout” to start combining the photos. Once finished, just publish the Story just like any other.

NDTV Gadgets360.com

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4 Million Advertisers Are Using Stories Across Instagram, Facebook, Messenger

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The total topped 3 million last May

Facebook highlighted recent Stories campaigns by Grove Collaborative and Clinique

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Facebook said at CES 2020 Tuesday that 4 million advertisers are now using Stories ads across Instagram, Facebook and Messenger.

The company’s Stories advertiser total topped 3 million last May.

The social network also highlighted recent Stories campaigns by two brands.

Direct-to-consumer brand Grove Collaborative—which makes eco-friendly household products in areas including cleaning, personal care, babies, kids and pets—created full-screen vertical video ads for immersive mobile viewing.

Facebook said the style of the videos was “personal and casual,” making it seem like actual customers were sharing videos of Grove Collaborative products being used in their homes, adding that viewers were able to swipe up to access the company’s online store.

Grove Collaborative said 37% of its new customers came via Stories, and the campaign resulted in a 25% lower cost per acquisition compared with all of its placements and a click-through rate 2.1 times higher than all of its other placements.

Skin care product manufacturer Clinique used its global #FindMyiD campaign to leverage data from Facebook’s platform and identify the top three concerns around skin.

In what the social network called a “great demonstration of personalization at scale,” Clinique then delivered personalized ads based on consumer signals, driving conversions online and in-store.

The campaign delivered a 114% lift in offline conversions in Malaysia, a 13-point lift in brand awareness (compared with the luxury benchmark of four points) in France and ad recall in 14 out of 20 markets that was two times the norms.

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