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’s Working on New Stickers That Would Enable Users to Promote Business Profiles in Stories
Instagram looks to be testing a new Stories sticker option which would enable users to share a business profile with their followers, including a header and a three-image preview that links through to a brand’s on-platform presence.
As you can see in this example, shared by reverse engineering expert Jane Manchun Wong, the new ‘Share Professional’ sticker would enable users to add in an Instagram @profile, which would then pull in thumbnails of the most recent three posts from that account. That preview could then be used as a promotional tool in Instagram Stories – you could promote the business of a friend, a service that’s helped you out, or maybe a local SMB that’s struggling during the COVID-19 shutdowns.
That’s likely the focus of the tool. Instagram has been looking for more ways to help promote small businesses that are suffering because of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this month, Instagram added new gift card, food order, and fundraiser tools, both for Stories and profiles, in order to provide more ways for brands and their communities to support local SMBs.
The ‘Share Professional’ sticker seems to align with this, while beyond COVID-19 it could also provide another, simple way for users to share tips on businesses that they like via their Stories.
It could be a valuable tool to consider. There’s not a heap to go on at this stage, but given the rising popularity of Stories, it could provide another, simple avenue to help raise awareness of your business on Instagram, and get more attention for your account.
You could ask your satisfied customers to share a link, you could use it within promotions – if it is eventually launched, there’s a range of ways in which it could be utilized to good effect.
Instagram hasn’t provided any info on the tool, but based on how far along it appears to be in the above screenshots, and going on Wong’s past record for such discoveries, it looks set to be announced sometime soon.
How to market your photographs on Instagram
One of the most popular social media platforms is Instagram through which various users express their views and talents through videos and photos. It is also a platform that is widely used by professional and amateur photographers to show off their talent in photography. For a photographer, Instagram is the best platform to showcase his or her photographs and gain popularity. The more Instagram followers you get, the more popular you will become.
Instagram is also a great platform to promote your business and attract clients and customers across the world. So, if you have not started on this social media platform yet, then you start it doing so right now. Here is how you can market your work on Instagram.
Create your Instagram Account
This is quite a simple and easy thing to do – create an Instagram account. It is an app can be easily downloaded on your phone. Registering to the platform is as easy as registering to other social media platforms. You can create two accountson Instagram – personal and business. If you are looking at Instagram for business purposes, then you should open a business account that has more features than the personal account.
However, you can also combine both professional and personal accounts together or keep them separate. Instagram allows its users to create multiple accounts and have access to all of them at the same time. To promote your business and keep your personal life restricted to your friends and family, then it is best to keep them separate.
You should also make sure that your bio speaks about you and your work. Also, ensure that it is short and not lengthy. You can take some ideas from other Instagram accounts of photographers if you are not sure how to do so.
What should you Post on Instagram?
The first thing to do before you post your photos on Instagram is to choose the best photo from your collection. Your photos posted on Instagram should be able to speak about your work. You can either edit your pictures or simply put them the way they are. If you are planning to edit the pictures, then you can do so on Instagram itself. But for more professional edits it is best to use your own software.
You can use themes to post your photos on a weekly or daily basis. Using the storyline for uploading photos on Instagram is also very popular among photographers.
How to Increase your Fan Following
If you are looking for some good numbers of Instagram likes, then ensure that you use as many popular hashtags as you can. Using hashtags attracts users who can get access to the photos or posts under those hashtags. If your photos are good and grab the attention of the Instagrammers, then you are surely going to get some huge number of likes.
Instagram needs to be live and active to keep the interest of the followers or other Instagrammers. Hence, make sure that you are posting your photos on a regular basis and also interacting with the followers. The more interaction you have with them, the more they are going to visit your account.
Facebook, Instagram and YouTube: Government forcing companies to protect you online
Although many of the details have still to be confirmed, it’s likely the new rules will apply to Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Snapchat, and Instagram
We often talk about the risks you might find online and whether social media companies need to do more to make sure you don’t come across inappropriate content.
Well, now media regulator Ofcom is getting new powers, to make sure companies protect both adults and children from harmful content online.
The media regulator makes sure everyone in media, including the BBC, is keeping to the rules.
Harmful content refers to things like violence, terrorism, cyber-bullying and child abuse.
The new rules will likely apply to Facebook – who also own Instagram and WhatsApp – Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok, and will include things like comments, forums and video-sharing.
Platforms will need to ensure that illegal content is removed quickly, and may also have to “minimise the risks” of it appearing at all.
These plans have been talked about for a while now.
The idea of new rules to tackle ‘online harms’ was originally set out by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in May 2018.
The government has now decided to give Ofcom these new powers following research called the ‘Online Harms consultation’, carried out in the UK in 2019.
Plans allowing Ofcom to take control of social media were first spoken of in August last year.
The government will officially announce these new powers for Ofcom on Wednesday 12 February.
But we won’t know right away exactly what new rules will be introduced, or what will happen to tech or social media companies who break the new rules.
Children’s charity the NSPCC has welcomed the news. It says trusting companies to keep children safe online has failed.
“Too many times social media companies have said: ‘We don’t like the idea of children being abused on our sites, we’ll do something, leave it to us,'” said chief executive Peter Wanless.
“Thirteen self-regulatory attempts to keep children safe online have failed.
The UK government’s Digital Secretary, Baroness Nicky Morgan said: “There are many platforms who ideally would not have wanted regulation, but I think that’s changing.”
“I think they understand now that actually regulation is coming.”
In many countries, social media platforms are allowed to regulate themselves, as long as they stick to local laws on illegal material.
But some, including Germany and Australia, have introduced strict rules to force social media platforms do more to protect users online.
In Australia, social media companies have to pay big fines and bosses can even be sent to prison if they break the rules.
For more information and tips about staying safe online, go to BBC Own It, and find out how to make the internet a better place for all of us.