There is a clear and growing link between Russian propaganda and online far-right extremism globally, according to a new study from researchers at the George Washington University.
Why it matters: The findings suggest the influence of Russian media on these communities is organic, which makes it harder to stop.
- “It’s almost like a fog of war,” said Neil F. Johnson, a physicist who co-authored the report. “It would be so easy if it were organized in some sense. It’s unfortunately not that way.”
Driving the news: The data gives context to recent real-world hate crimes, most notably the mass shooting in Buffalo, N,Y., last month.
- “Our paper establishes a connection of these two worlds: Russian media promoting certain types of narratives around themes like immigration or racism, and a whole ecology of extreme communities online listening to them,” Johnson said.
- A network of hate groups amplifies exiting narratives about white nationalism in a way that seeps into the mainstream, he noted. Those messages are often first spread on fringe platforms, often encrypted chat apps and gaming networks.
How it works: To study the connection between extremist groups online and Russian propaganda, researchers mapped what they call “hate clusters” (online fringe extremist groups) that have posted links to Russian media.
- They identified 734 extremist groups, and surveyed whether and how often those groups shared links to Russian state media across five social networks, from June 2019 through January 2020.
Key takeaways: The findings suggest extremist hate groups that post links to Russian media tend to originate from places with deep racial divides, including North America, Europe, South Africa, Australia, and Nordic regions.
- “The common theme is white frustration, which bleeds into ‘Who can I blame?” Johnson said. This is why extremist groups online often bleed into one another organically. “They are looking to see whether there are other communities online around the world that also feel the way they do.”
- Mainstream social networks, like Facebook, may harbor a greater number of extremist groups compared to smaller platforms, but those groups are far less likely to share links to Russian media, likely due to stricter content moderation. Less than 1% of the total Russian state links identified were shared on Facebook.
- Hate groups on 4chan and Gab, which are both based in the U.S., share almost as many links to Russian state media sources as the Russian social media network VKontakte (VK).
The big picture: The findings dispel the notion that Russian influence on domestic extremism happens through coordinated bot campaigns.
- Instead, they suggest that even a small number of stories from Russian state media can spread very quickly among a huge ecosystem of interconnected extremist communities.
“It turns out that we’ve all got it wrong,” Johnson said.
- ‘What this study shows is you don’t need a huge organized campaign of bots to influence these types of groups and movements,” he said, but rather “just a sprinkling” of stories from Russian media to feed a sprawling network of hate communities that will spread the divisive messaging on their own.
What’s next: Johnson, who has spent years mapping the intersection between extremist communities online, notes that these types of groups are “self policing,” and often shift their messaging around certain topics.
- But they continuously take cues from Russian media, or messages derived from Russian media and spread by like-minded groups.
- “They’re listening, the issue is who they’re listening to.”