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Russian trolls sought to inflame debate over Dakota Access Pipeline

WASHINGTON - Russian trolls used Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to inflame U.S. political debate over energy policy and climate change, a finding that underscores how the Russian campaign of social media manipulation went beyond the 2016 preside...

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File photo of a police line moving through and past the north protest camp on North Dakota Hwy. 1806 on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, north of Cannon Ball. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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WASHINGTON - Russian trolls used Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to inflame U.S. political debate over energy policy and climate change, a finding that underscores how the Russian campaign of social media manipulation went beyond the 2016 president election, congressional investigators reported on Thursday.

The new report from the House Science, Space and Technology Committee includes previously unreleased social media posts that Russians created on such contentious political issues as the Dakota Access Pipeline, government efforts to curb global warming and hydraulic fracturing, a gas mining technique often called "fracking."

One Facebook post created by a Russian-controlled group called "Native Americans United" shows what appears to be a young girl in a braid peering out over an unspoiled prairie. "Love Water Not Oil, Protect Our Mother, Stand With Standing Rock," a reference to an Indian tribe that opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline. The post also said, "No Pipelines. No Fracking. No Tar Sands."

The 21-page report drew from documents submitted in the fall by Twitter and Facebook, which owns Instagram, for congressional investigations into the social media influence campaign during the 2016 presidential election. Those probes focused on the efforts by the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm in St. Petersburg that Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted this month for disrupting and influencing U.S. politics.

The committee's report found that, between 2015 and 2017, more than 9,000 posts and tweets dealt with U.S. energy policy produced by 4,334 Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts controlled by the Internet Research Agency. Twitter told the committee that more than 4 percent of tweets produced by the Russians dealt with energy and climate issues.

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"This report reveals that Russian agents created and spread propaganda on U.S. social media platforms in an obvious attempt to influence the U.S. energy market," said committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, in a statement that accompanied the release of the report Thursday morning. "The American people deserve to know if what they see on social media is the creation of a foreign power seeking to undermine our domestic energy policy."

Smith is a longtime advocate for increased oil and gas drilling in the United States and counts the industry as one of his biggest political benefactors. It has contributed more than $772,000 to his re-election campaigns, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The lawmaker, who has announced plans to retire after this congressional term, has questioned the veracity of climate science. During a particularly contentious, March 2017 congressional hearing, Smith charged that much of that science "appears to be based more on exaggerations, personal agendas and questionable predictions than on the scientific method."

Facebook declined to comment on the report.

Twitter issued a statement seeking to minimize the reach of the Russian disinformation campaign. "In our report to Chairman Smith we noted that a small subset (413) of these accounts participated in conversations related to energy, that their total volume of Tweets was relatively small (5,594 original Tweets, 2,223 Retweets), and that these Tweets represented an extremely small portion of the broader discussion of energy issues on Twitter."

The report underscores how Russians worked on both sides of contentious American political issues. The Facebook posts - which typically were accompanied by identical posts shared by affiliated Instagram accounts - appeared designed to specifically appeal to either liberal or conservative audiences. There were posts, for example, expressing concern about climate change and others mocking it.

This tracks previous reports about how the Russian disinformation campaign worked to inflame other sensitive political issues - and worked both sides - on racial and religious matters, immigration policy and gay marriage.

One post from the Facebook account "Blacktivist" - an IRA-tied account that had sought to stoke racial tensions online - included an apparent image of law enforcement battling protesters at the Dakota Pipeline. "We're about to celebrate thanksgiving and tell schoolchildren we made peace w Native Americans while DAPL protesters are being tear gassed," the post read. It was shared 497 times on Facebook, according to the committee.

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Smith's investigation also contends that Russian trolls advocated for "the complete abandonment of specific fuel sources, such as fossil fuels, by touting exaggerated claims about alternative energy sources." One such post from the IRA account "Born Liberal" - appearing on both Facebook and Instagram - highlighted how oil giants reaped billions of dollars in profits last year as public schools lacked funding.

Republicans on the House's top science panel say Russian posts sought to link climate change to catastrophic weather events, claiming that the IRA aimed to "generate further domestic controversy" about the environmental issue.

Other online accounts tied to the Internet Research Agency sought to promote drilling and to question climate science, including in Smith's home state of Texas.

 

  Story by Craig Timberg. Timberg is a national technology reporter for The Washington Post.

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