• The Mueller report detailed the Internet Research Agency's efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, indicting a number of figures associated with it
  • The Brennan Center report examined data gathered in September and is too limited to conclude whether the disinformation campaign is geared toward getting Trump reelected
  • The IRA has refined its approach to make its posts look more legitimate

Russia started its 2020 U.S. presidential disinformation campaign last year, using the same platforms it exploited for the 2016 contest, but there was not enough data to determine whether the Moscow was trying to get President Trump reelected, a report by the Brennan Center for Justice released Thursday said.

Young Mie Kim, a democracy scholar at the nonpartisan law and policy institute, said she began noticing accounts linked to the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, which the Mueller investigation cited for 2016 election interference, started their social media campaigns in September.

“Some strategies and tactics for election interference were the same as before. Russia’s trolls pretended to be American people, including political groups and candidates. They tried to sow division by targeting both the left and right with posts to foment outrage, fear, and hostility. Much of their activity seemed designed to discourage certain people from voting. And they focused on swing states,” said Kim, who heads Project DATA (Digital Ad Tracking & Analysis).

“But the IRA’s approach is evolving. Its trolls have gotten better at impersonating candidates and parties, more closely mimicking logos of official campaigns. They have moved away from creating their own fake advocacy groups to mimicking and appropriating the names of actual American groups. And they’ve increased their use of seemingly nonpolitical content and commercial accounts, hiding their attempts to build networks of influence.”

The report found Russia is targeting both sides of the political spectrum with wedge issues, zeroing in on likely voters for particular candidates to break down coalitions, leading to voter suppression.

“It is also notable that one of the accounts, stop.trump2020, was fully devoted to anti-Trump messaging, similar to the IRA’s organization of the post-election rally, ‘Not My President,’” Kim said.

Kim said researchers found attack messages both for and against major candidates and parties, but the majority of the posts were issue or interest based.

“The IRA is well-versed enough in the history and culture of our politics to exploit sharp political divisions already existing in our society. Targeting those who are likely to be interested in a particular issue but dissatisfied with the current party platforms or policies, the IRA campaigns often create an ‘us vs. them’ discourse, feeding fear to activate or demobilize those who consider an issue personally important,” she said.

Kim said she could not conclude whether the Russian effort was designed to get Trump reelected.

“Unlike my previous studies that examined the corpus of all of the digital campaigns exposed to a representative sample of the U.S. voting age population … or the entire body of IRA posts on social media for three years, this analysis is limited to an anecdotal data collection at an earlier stage of the 2020 elections,” she said.

An intelligence assessment last month warned of Russian interference in the 2020 campaign on the behalf of both Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.