Russia targeted LGBT Americans with Facebook propaganda during 2016 US election

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The Russian government targeted gay Americans with a propaganda campaign on Facebook, according to reports.

Russia’s involvement in online propaganda aimed at US citizens has developed into a major scandal, as reports exposed paid Facebook promotion for posts targeted at people in the US.

It has emerged this month that the complex Russian subversion operation targeted a multitude of groups in the US, with Facebook confirming it has shuttered hundreds of accounts that were exposed as the products of a Russian government-run content farm.

Among the pages operated by Russian propaganda network is ‘LGBT United’, a Facebook page that claims to speak “for all fellow members of LGBT community across the nation”.

According to the Washington Post, other pages targeted at US citizens run by Russia included ‘Blacktivists’, ‘United Muslims of America’, ‘Being Patriotic’, ‘Heart of Texas’ and ‘Secured Borders’.

Social media analyst Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, looked at the influence of the pages.

(Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

His analysis found that posts from LGBT United received more than 5 million shares.

The page seldom referenced the election, primarily dedicating itself to building an influence base among LGBT people, as well as potentially ‘drowning out’ election coverage from legitimate LGBT outlets.

It did appear critical of mainstream Republicans, branding a supporter of Ted Cruz a “thunderc*nt”.

Albright said: “The tone of the posts [from the different pages] varies strikingly… the one seemingly managed by a lesbian is intimate, confidential and chatty, with complaints about parents and teachers not understanding the challenges of being young and gay.

“The English is nearly flawless. One popular post said simply, ‘Bi and proud!’ with a thumbs-up emoji attached to the end.”

He added: “The goal seemed less to inspire enthusiasm for one candidate than to dampen support for voting at all.”

Ironically, many of the Russian government-sanctioned posts – which positively celebrate LGBT rights – would be illegal on Russian social media platforms under the country’s laws outlawing gay ‘propaganda’.

The pages have since been shuttered by Facebook.

In a blog,  Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s Vice President of Policy and Communications, addressed the growing scandal.

He said: “Approximately 470 accounts and Pages we shut down recently were identified by our dedicated security team that manually investigates specific, organized threats. They found that this set of accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another — and were likely operated out of Russia.”

He added that it was possible there were more pages undiscovered.

Schrage said: “When we’re looking for this type of abuse, we cast a wide net in trying to identify any activity that looks suspicious. But it’s a game of cat and mouse.

“Bad actors are always working to use more sophisticated methods to obfuscate their origins and cover their tracks.

“That in turn leads us to devise new methods and smarter tactics to catch them — things like machine learning, data science and highly trained human investigators. And, of course, our internal inquiry continues.

“It’s possible that government investigators have information that could help us, and we welcome any information the authorities are willing to share to help with our own investigations.

“Using ads and other messaging to affect political discourse has become a common part of the cybersecurity arsenal for organized, advanced actors.

“This means all online platforms will need to address this issue, and get smarter about how to address it, now and in the future.”

The Facebook scandal comes after US intelligence forces raised fears about Russian involvement in damaging hacks that targeted Democrats during the election and severely damaged Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, Special Counsel Robert Mueller is overseeing an investigation into any links or coordination between Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump”.

Related: Trump-backed Senate candidate has praised Russia’s gay propaganda law