The Italian analytics firm Ghost Data has identified a suspicious operation against current US President Donald Trump on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook Inc. Researchers spotted what they referred to as a “coordinated social media operation” with a mass of identical posts featuring hashtags #ihatetrump and #ImpeachTrump on the photo hosting platform. The extreme and violent messages aimed at Trump and “easily” regarded as “hate speech” are reportedly being spread in a coordinated way through fake profiles on Instagram, which has around 1 billion users.
The network detected by Ghost Data consisted of 350 Instagram accounts blasting Trump with strong language as well as 19 profiles, promoting them. The profiles were discovered to have been “activated and turned off” on the same day. They reportedly published “similar or identical content” while many messages emerged with a time gap of just several minutes.
The head of research at Ghost Data, Andrea Stroppa, has told Sputnik that his firm, which has been carrying out research into social media data and digital propaganda since 2013, discovered that the alleged campaign was spreading memes against Trump and promoting the posts using organic tools without buying ads. According to him, the “tactics are similar to other digital operations: to infiltrate legit communities, share contents, gain followers and visibility”.
However, Ghost Data could not identify the perpetrators, but noted that there are indications that some profiles were being managed from outside the US.
“We don’t know who is behind the accounts, but in some cases we believe accounts are managed outside the US. Specifically, there are evidences [sic] that some accounts started to publish contents in hours very unlikely for US citizens”, the researcher noted.
According to the analysts, the operation “swelled dramatically” over the last two months with the top accounts showing exponential growth. So far the alleged campaign posts have had 35.2 million interactions.
“We have uncovered a small operation that is very likely part of something bigger. I get the feeling that someone out there is experimenting. Testing the waters. They know what they are doing”, Stroppa suggested.
Ghost Data’s head analyst notably indicated that the alleged campaign might have used "some of the same methods" that were levelled against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Over the course of their investigation, the researchers had to differentiate between “clickbait strategies and sincere political outrage”, analysing thousands of accounts. While there is said to be about 52,000 Instagram profiles with anti-Trump rhetoric, many of them are purported to be genuine.
Instagram has stated that some of the questionable accounts have been already removed for violating the social network’s rules.
“We are investigating the accounts in question and have already removed those that we’ve found to violate our policies. Accounts used to manipulate or mislead the public are not allowed on Instagram and we will take action if we find additional violations”, the tech giant’s spokesperson stated.
Donald Trump has not yet commented on the study’s results.
However, last month, a group of Republican Senators already accused Google, Facebook and Twitter of having an anti-conservative bias and suppressing free speech. The lawmakers charged them with abusing a de-facto monopoly to exert censorship and suggested anti-trust actions against the tech titans.
Controversies like alleged Russian meddling in the US elections and spreading fake news, as well as messages that promote violence, have put the social network giant on the hot seat, forcing it to re-evaluate its ad policy. Facebook, for example, introduced the same geographical limitations that are in place in Europe for the US midterm elections.