Camille Francois remembers the day she learned that the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence was granting her the extraordinary opportunity to research the extent of Russia’s influence operations during 2016 presidential election campaign.
“Our CEO [John Kelly]… said, ‘Hey Cam, what would you say if we had access to the actual data and data traces from the Russian troll farm activity on Google, on Twitter, and on Facebook, and on Instagram and we could really look into what exactly happened?” said Francois, chief innovation officer at New York-based social network mapping and analysis company Graphika, in a podcast interview with SC Media. “And I… thought he was pulling my leg, and I was like, ‘Yeah, John, that would be great! Bring over the ‘magic data box!’”
But it was no joke. The team at Graphika and its research partner the Oxford Internet Institute would spend the next seven months researching the data and in December of 2018 released a report on their findings. Some of their discoveries ultimately found their way into an October 2019 Senate Intel committee report detailing Russian social media interference.
Thinking back on her research, what really strikes Francois was just how sophisticated the Russian social media trolls were at what she called the “subtle art of mimicking the American conversation and slowly, increasingly weaponizing it by increasing the divisiveness of the messages.”
“It takes a long time to create false personas that are going to have the type of influence that you need in order to do a successful campaign,” said Francois. “They had managed to really weave… these asses within the fabric of how Americans discussed politics online.
“They didn’t just devise political content in order to create this influence. You have to do a mix of funny content, Kim Kardashian jokes, and then a really racist tweet.”
In this podcast, Francois shares some of her key research findings on the Russian campaign, assesses whether the U.S. is better prepared for the 2020 vote, and recalls the memorable day that she testified on Capitol Hill.