Facebook Still Faces Questions About Russia’s Reach

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Jonathan Albright, a research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, was able to analyze data on the followings for six of the pages. Just those six had 1.6 million followers in August 2017, Mr. Albright’s analysis showed. He counted the followers of each page.

Since 120 pages were associated with the Internet Research Agency, Mr. Albright said the total of followers for all the pages was probably significantly larger than 1.8 million. He said he believed that the number might have been as high as 10 million. He could not analyze data for all 120 pages because Facebook made a change last year that prevented him and others from using a data analytics tool, called CrowdTangle, owned by Facebook.

The pages associated with the Internet Research Agency, which Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, accused of meddling in the election, occupied different places on the political spectrum. But their content was often designed to sow discord. Blacktivist, which was set up ostensibly to champion African-American rights, had just over 198,000 followers by the time of the presidential election, a big jump from 14,000 at the end of 2015, according to Mr. Albright’s data. Being Patriotic, a group that made incendiary posts about illegal immigration, had 182,000 followers by the time of the election, up from 70,000 in April 2016, the earliest date in Mr. Albright’s data.

Other popular groups set up by the Internet Research Agency included Army of Jesus and Stop All Invaders.

“We stand behind the figures we submitted to the U.S. government: Approximately 1.8 million people followed at least one Facebook page associated with the Internet Research Agency,” Matt Steinfeld, a Facebook spokesman, said in an email. As for Mr. Albright’s analysis, Mr. Steinfeld said, “The CrowdTangle data that this researcher’s analysis relied upon did not account for any people who followed more than one page. Our submitted figures removed this duplication.”

Facebook’s method would arrive at a lower total than counting the followers of each page.

Its total also did not include the followers the Internet Research Agency gained on Instagram, which is part of Facebook. Nearly 170 accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency made posts on Instagram. Twenty-seven of these accounts had nearly 2.2 million followers, Mr. Albright estimated, an analysis that Wired magazine reported in March.

Mr. Steinfeld said in the email: “We provided our best estimate for the number of people reached on Facebook or Instagram. We did not calculate the volume of people who followed at least one Instagram account associated with the Internet Research Agency.”

Analysts who are skeptical of the claim the Russia-linked pages had significant reach have asked whether many of their followers were authentic Facebook users or whether a large number were Russian-linked users who followed the pages merely to make them look more popular. But the person briefed on Facebook’s data said inauthentic users were not a significant driver of the follower totals.

“We need to know a lot more information,” Mr. Albright said. “My biggest concern in all this is that information’s been withheld that has great significance to the bigger picture.”

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