Trolls using Instagram to 'try to show Trump as a Russian puppet,' influence 2020 US presidential election, study says

As the 2020 U.S. presidential election campaign draws nearer, an independent study has uncovered what it calls a coordinated troll campaign using Instagram in an attempt to damage President Trump.

The study, put together by Italian analytics company Ghost Data, uncovered approximately 52,000 accounts whose content is negative toward Trump and 350 whose content is almost exclusively negative toward Trump. Of those accounts, 19 of them were flagged for particularly suspicious activity, using memes.

There are roughly 35.2 million interactions in the dataset, including 3.9 million in the last two months. "It shows how the accounts are becoming more capable of generating engagement in recent months," Andrea Stroppa, Ghost Data's head of research, told Fox News via email. An interaction is an action a user takes on the image, such as a "like" or a comment.

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"There are many references to Russia and Putin," Stroppa added via text message. "These accounts try to show President Trump as a Russian puppet."

Many of the accounts are tagged with "hatetrump" and "ihatetrump," the research revealed. While Russian election meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign has been well documented, the trolling operation is significantly smaller in scope at this stage.

Stoppa told Reuters that he believes "someone out there is experimenting" and "testing the waters" at this point in time.

Many of the images are graphic in nature, but Ghost Data has exclusively shared 900 of them with Fox News after their removal by Instagram. Several of them can be seen below:

(Credit: Ghost Data, Instagram)

(Credit: Ghost Data, Instagram)

(Credit: Ghost Data, Instagram)

(Credit: Ghost Data, Instagram)

(Credit: Ghost Data, Instagram)

(Credit: Ghost Data, Instagram)

(Credit: Ghost Data, Instagram)

(Credit: Ghost Data, Instagram)

(Credit: Ghost Data, Instagram)

(Credit: Ghost Data, Instagram)

The study added that several of the accounts appear to have usurped Instagram's rules, including stealing pictures, creating fake accounts and appearing to work in conjunction with other accounts.

Stroppa noted that a Facebook page called "DumpChump" had registered with Facebook as a political organization, bought advertising and also created an Instagram account using the same image. However, it does not exist as an actual political organization, a prime example that Facebook "has yet to improve on this issue," Stroppa added.

He also pointed out that the report shows that several of the pictures (or memes) "are shared by different accounts in a short period of time."

"Even if it is impossible to differentiate between clickbait strategies and sincere political outrage, our data shows that a certain number of accounts are directly linked to each other and even operate in a coordinated fashion to spread these anti-Trump memes," the report reads.

In an email, an Instagram spokesperson told Fox News that it is investigating the accounts in question, having already removed those that violated the platform's policies. "Accounts used to manipulate or mislead the public are not allowed on Instagram, and we will take action if we find additional violations.”

Instagram, which surpassed 1 billion monthly active users in 2018, has become a powerful tool for parent company Facebook. Not only is it helping Facebook capture a significant portion of the digital advertising market around the world, but the photo-centric social network recently amped up its e-commerce efforts, increasing its influence and reach.

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Stroppa did not want to stoke speculation that the campaign is coming from a foreign entity and, in particular, from Russia, but noted the timing of the posts seemed odd. He noted that there is particular activity between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. EST, which he said would be a time "more understandable for users who live [on] other continents."

Since Mark Zuckerberg declared that it was a "pretty crazy idea" to think Facebook influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook and its corporate siblings have gone to great lengths to fight against extremist content and propaganda campaigns.

The company and its leaders – Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg and several others – have publicly apologized for the slow response and have vowed to continue working to root out the extremist content posted to its properties. As evidenced by Ghost Data's findings, the tech giant still has more work to do, even as calls to break Facebook up into separate entities grow louder from lawmakers.

A person familiar with Instagram and Facebook's removal policies said the two teams are working together to identify accounts that are misleading and manipulating the public.

The company has also fostered partnerships with law enforcement, outside experts and other companies across the globe to help them with their investigations and removing the accounts, including one that transpired in Israel last week, the person said.

As part of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the 2016 U.S. presidential election, he handed out indictments to 13 Russian nationals for election interference, including the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian company that was behind the fake Facebook ads running up to the 2016 election.

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Ghost Data's findings seem to back up what others have said, that Russia is not simply pro-Republican or pro-Democrat, that they are anti-American. They have infiltrated events such as the Parkland, Fla., shooting, the hit 2018 movie "Black Panther" and a host of other public events that have stirred up debate.

In late 2018, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee said in multiple reports that the IRA had created 133 Instagram accounts in 2016 in an effort to use the platform to sow distrust.

One of the reports also noted that Instagram "was a significant front in the IRA's influence operation," something that Facebook executives did not mention when testifying before Congress. It also assessed that "Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis."

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