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Speaking in Code

Communication Students Catalog Russian Propaganda

By Sala Levin ’10


Photo Collage by Kolin Behrens

Photo Collage by Kolin Behrens

“Racial tensions.” “REAL AMERICA.” “can’t trust the Clintons.” “Stop Refugees.” These are some of the tags UMD students used to code some 3,000 Facebook advertisements planted by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. With help from the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH), these ads are now publicly searchable in an online database in which they’re categorized by content and theme.

“These hand-coded tags give us a much sharper sense of what kinds of themes the Russian propagandists thought would be effective,” said communication Associate Professor Damien Pfister, who taught the “Interpreting Strategic Discourse” class.

This spring, Congress released the ads after hearings about Kremlin-backed efforts to use social media to influence the election. Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified, as did executives from Google and Twitter.

Many of the messages posted by the IRA under made-up Facebook accounts espoused viewpoints on both sides of hot-button issues: police violence, the Second Amendment, NFL players’ protests and more.

But not all the ads created by the IRA were inflammatory. “The IRA was basically trying to cultivate an audience, and they did so by posting non-controversial memes and statements of affirmation, but then they would occasionally sneak in some more traditionally political content—something anti- or pro-Trump, or anti- or pro-Clinton,” said Pfister.

Students got a closer glimpse at a news story that they may have been only vaguely familiar with. Spending hours meticulously coding Russian propaganda “changed my outlook entirely,” said Helana Zagami ’20 said. “It was very smart of them to target the grassroots…they managed to see a flaw within our society and exacerbate it.”

Pfister hopes the project will be “a resource for the general public to use and learn more about how outside actors are trying to manipulate them.” Researchers at universities like Oregon State, Penn State and the University of Texas have expressed interest in the database, perhaps to determine if there was a common rhetorical strategy that the most visible ads shared.

Pfister also hopes it enlightens citizens and policy makers about contemporary propaganda. “In the 21st century, any of these online organizations could be a front group for something like the IRA.”

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