Tumblr deletes Russian disinformation accounts

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor

On March 23, social media site Tumblr confirmed that it had linked at least 84 accounts on the website to 13 agents of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian propaganda outfit that sought to sow political discord on social media prior to the 2016 election.

Tumblr deactivated the identified IRA blogs and emailed a list of their handles to any users who had either followed the accounts themselves or interacted with the content that they posted.

However, Tumblr did not delete the posts from IRA blogs that users had “reblogged” (shared to their own blog).
In an email with the subject line “Update on Russian-linked activity on Tumblr,” the site informed its users of the actions it had taken, and what it meant for users who had interacted with posts from the IRA-run accounts, as well as Tumblr’s stance on the issue.

“You aren’t in trouble, and you don’t need to take any action if you don’t want to,” the email read. “We deleted the accounts but decided to leave up any reblog chains so that you can curate your own Tumblr to reflect your own personal views and perspectives.

“Democracy requires transparency and an informed electorate and we take our disclosure responsibility very seriously. We’ll be aggressively watching for disinformation campaigns in the future, take the appropriate action, and make sure you know about it.”

In a piece for The New Yorker, Adrian Chen, who wrote one of the earliest and most detailed articles on the IRA back in 2015 for The New York Times, described many of the IRA efforts to influence the election on Facebook and Twitter as disproportionately conservative and anti-Clinton.

As it stands, many news outlets have noted that the troll blogs on Tumblr had a left-leaning political bend and some posted innocuous content, usually ripped from Twitter, about social issues.

Back in early February, Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism stated that the effort on Tumblr was one of the largest to specifically target left-leaning, African-American youth.

Many IRA blogs were staggeringly popular among Tumblr users. According to New York, one such account, under the username nevaehtyler, re-posted a two-minute documentary about street harassment from a Twitter account, and it amassed over 600,000 notes (or reblogs and likes, total). Another, with the username lagonegirl, posted a joke about having anxiety disorder that garnered over 300,000 notes.

The content on these blogs often combined such widely appealing posts with ones that played on emotions in order to manipulate feelings about certain presidential candidates. For example, lagonegirl also made a post slamming Hillary Clinton’s apparent position against free college for all Americans, while failing to mention the fact that the candidate did believe that college should be free for any American who could otherwise not afford tuition without taking out loans.

The blogs also worked together to boost each others’ content. One of the most popular IRA accounts, 4mysquad, reblogged a post from lagonegirl about an apparent sex trafficking scheme that gained over 300,000 notes.

In a more recent New Yorker piece, Chen stated that he believes that the influence of these efforts are overstated by the media.
After receiving an email from Tumblr, Ryan Broderick, Buzzfeed’s Deputy Global News Director, stated that he believes that the reach of Russian trolls on Tumblr is probably limited.

At the time of posting, Albright has not measured how many Tumblr users were exposed to IRA posts, but he estimates that about 150 million Americans have been exposed to Russian propaganda on Facebook.

The influence of Russian propaganda on the election results themselves is indeterminable, because we can’t accurately measure how many individuals who shared the content would have voted for Clinton otherwise. However, because Tumblr chose to leave flagged IRA posts on its users’ blogs, the public now has an opportunity to analyze and reflect on how the IRA’s attempts to spread influence on social media worked.