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Russian Trolls Came for Instagram, Too

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In the wake of the 2016 election, Instagram — known as the home of preening influencers, artfully arranged grain bowls and Icelandic vacation photos — somehow escaped much of the scrutiny of other social networks.

But two new reports suggest that may have been a mistake. The reports, conducted by independent groups and released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday, concluded that Instagram — which is owned by Facebook — became a favored tool of Russian internet trolls after the 2016 election.

According to the reports, which were based on a trove of data provided by social media companies, Russia’s Internet Research Agency operated a vast network of accounts on Instagram that sought to infiltrate American identity groups, harden ideological divides and sow distrust in the American political system.

Much of the group’s activity was concentrated among several dozen large accounts, including one called @blackstagram_ and another called @american.veterans, both of which had more than 200,000 followers. Many of the group’s accounts targeted specific identity groups, including African-Americans, gun-rights supporters and anti-immigration activists.

In total, posts from Instagram accounts linked to the I.R.A. received nearly 185 million likes during the two-year period reviewed by the researchers, and about four million comments, according to the researchers. This activity accelerated in 2017, as Facebook’s stepped-up security measures after the election pushed the Russians to social media sites where they could troll more freely.

“On Instagram, I.R.A. activities did not cease after the 2016 election but became substantially more vigorous,” read one of the reports, which was written by Oxford University researchers along with Graphika, a company that maps social network activity.

The second report, written by researchers at the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge, concluded that Instagram was “perhaps the most effective platform for the Internet Research Agency” in terms of generating engagement.

“Our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis,” the researchers wrote.

Facebook responded by saying in statement: “As we’ve said all along, Congress and the intelligence community are best placed to use the information we and others provide to determine the political motivations of actors like the Internet Research Agency. We continue to fully cooperate with officials investigating the I.R.A.’s activity on Facebook and Instagram around the 2016 election.”

A closer look at the Internet Research Agency’s posts reveals that the group used Instagram for several distinct purposes.

As on other social networks, the I.R.A. used Instagram posts before the 2016 election to generate support for Donald J. Trump and attack Hillary Clinton.

One post, made by an Instagram account called @feminism_tag, accused Ms. Clinton of insulting women who had accused her husband, Bill Clinton, of sexual misconduct. Another post targeted at African-American voters showed a manipulated image of Ms. Clinton with braided hair, and was captioned “when you need the black vote.”

In all, roughly 7 percent of the more than 100,000 Instagram posts included in the data set mentioned Ms. Clinton, while 11 percent mentioned Mr. Trump. There were no instances of pro-Clinton content on Instagram, according to the New Knowledge report.

Many of the Russian posts focused on developing audiences among specific American identity groups, which could then be used to target them with content and advertising later on.

Several of the I.R.A.’s most popular Instagram accounts focused on African-American themes and interests. One image, posted to the @blackstagram_ account in June 2017, showed a series of women’s legs, with skin tones ranging from light to dark. The caption read, “All the tones are nude! Get over it!” It received more than 250,000 likes and more than 6,000 comments.

Another image, posted to an account called @army_of_jesus, encouraged users to “like if you believe,” and “keep scrolling if you don’t.” The account, which originally shared Kermit the Frog memes and jokes from “The Simpsons,” was later repurposed to target conservative Christians.

Several of the Instagram posts traced to Russia offered merchandise for sale. One post, shared by the @stay4police account, advertised T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts that read “I Support American Law Enforcement.” Other posts encouraged black Instagram users to support black-owned businesses with the hashtag #buyblack, and offered natural skin care products and other merchandise targeted at a black audience.

These merchandise sales most likely were not lucrative for the I.R.A. Instead, researchers suggested, selling merchandise had two other benefits: first, it allowed Russians to collect names, addresses and other personal information from users; second, it allowed them to identify strong supporters of a cause, who could then be targeted with advertisements.

In the days leading up to the 2016 election, some I.R.A.-linked Instagram accounts were used to seed doubts about the integrity of the election, and to accuse Democrats of trying to rig the vote in their favor. One image, shared by conservative-focused Instagram accounts, contained a false accusation of voter fraud in Pennsylvania. It was shared to Twitter and Facebook as well.

After Mr. Trump’s victory, the I.R.A.’s Instagram focus became more intense. In the six months following the election, the I.R.A. more than tripled its Instagram posting frequency, while its activity on Facebook increased by only 59 percent.

During this time, the Instagram accounts associated with Russia continued to post partisan content, much of which was recycled from other accounts.

The Russian Instagram accounts reached their peak of activity in May 2017, then experienced a sharp decline until October of that year, when they essentially disappeared from view.

That month, Facebook disclosed to Congress that it had identified and shut down more than 170 Russia-linked Instagram accounts, which had collectively posted about 120,000 times.

Kevin Roose is a columnist for Business and a writer at large for The New York Times Magazine. His column, “The Shift,” examines the intersection of technology, business and culture. @kevinrooseFacebook

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Canadian tech diversity and inclusion in the spotlight

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Diversity and inclusion are hot-button issues, but for all the attention they get, there’s still work to be done in the tech sector, according to a recent Gartner blog.

Citing a range of challenges that include pay inequity, lack of diversity in corporate management, and difficulty recruiting diverse talent, the blog suggests three possible remedies for organizations trying to become more diverse and inclusive: having a long-term plan but focusing on one aspect that will make the most benefit, setting targets and making leadership accountable, and committing resources.

The call for such strategies finds support in a report from the Brookfield Institute revealing that Canada’s technology sector has a disappointing track record when it comes to inclusion and equity, with women “four times less likely to be employed in the sector than men, and earning on average $7,300 less than men in technology jobs.”

The findings are just as grim in a January 2020 report funded by Canada’s Future Skills Centre. According to this document, despite corporate commitments to diversity, “decades of initiatives designed to advance women in technology have scarcely had an effect: The proportion of women in engineering and computer science in Canada has changed little in 25 years.”

And women are not the only disadvantaged group, says the report. “The under-employment of skilled immigrants and under-representation of women and other groups in the ICT industry suggests that recruitment and retention policies and practices of the very firms complaining about this [skills] gap may be contributing to the problem.”

Until we do a better job of addressing inclusion and diversity, career opportunities will continue to be limited for women, internationally educated professionals, racialized minorities, First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. In addition to being a very human issue, this is also one that perpetuates the ICT skills gap by failing to tap into a supply of well-qualified labour.

On the bright side, there are technology companies and organizations across Canada that are truly determined to create opportunities for those who are under-represented in the digital talent pool. There is also an opportunity to recognize their efforts during Channel Innovation 2021: Adapting to the New Customer Experience, a 2.5-hour, virtual event on April 28, 2021.

A showcase for independent software vendors (ISVs) and Canadian channel innovators, the Channel Innovation 2021 celebration will take place on CIA-TV, a unique ITWC platform that allows the audience to take in the show, download related content and videos, and network in live breakout rooms. There are six award categories, including the C4 Award for Diversity and Inclusion. Nominating is simple. Whether a self- or third-party nomination, there are only two main questions to answer and an opportunity to include a supporting document or image.

Winning entries will be announced during the celebration and profiled in the Channel Daily News Magazine and in Direction Informatique, ITWC’s French-language publication devoted to the Quebec marketplace. They will also receive a digital badge for use on their websites and on social media to help gain industry-wide recognition and end-user exposure.

The media attention and recognition are reason enough to vie for this honour, and we always need things to celebrate during a global pandemic, but the real value in awards for diversity and inclusion is in setting an example for others to follow. The news is full of the ways we are falling down when it comes to equity in the IT sector. Let’s take some time to highlight the success stories and encourage other tech innovators to step up.

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Leading Canadian tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar to give virtual keynote in Peterborough on March 9

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In celebration of International Women’s Day, one of Canada’s leading female tech entrepreneurs will be giving a virtual keynote for residents of Peterborough and the Kawarthas on Tuesday, March 9th at 7 p.m.

The Innovation Cluster is hosting Saadia Muzaffar as part of its ‘Electric City Talks’ series.

Muzaffar is a tech entrepreneur, author, and passionate advocate of responsible innovation, decent work for everyone, and prosperity of immigrant talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). She is the founder of TechGirls Canada, a hub for Canadian women in STEM, and co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, a group of business people, technologists, and other residents advocating for innovation that is focused on the public good.

In 2017, Muzaffar was featured in Canada 150 Women, a book about 150 of the most influential and groundbreaking women in Canada. Her work has been featured in CNNMoney, BBC World, Fortune Magazine, The Globe and Mail, VICE, CBC, TVO, and Chatelaine.

Muzaffar’s March 9th talk, entitled ‘Redefining Term Sheets: Success, Solidarity, & The Future We Want’, will inspire women to achieve success in all areas of life, including in business by providing strategies for obtaining funding.

“It is impossible to explain how women only get 2.2 per cent of funding for their ventures while we constitute a majority of the population, without acknowledging long-standing structural and systemic bias,” Muzaffar says, describing her talk. “Women know these odds in our bones because we feel them in too many boardrooms, banks, media advertisements, and venture competitions — yet women are the fastest-growing demographic in new businesses.”

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ARK’s Cathie Wood joins board of Canadian tech firm mimik

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ARK Invest’s Cathie Wood is joining the board of Canadian technology company mimik.

Vancouver-based mimik is an edge computing company that effectively turns devices like phones into private cloud servers. It has already teamed up with Amazon Web Services and IBM on edge computing – two of the bigger players in the space.

The AWS partnership gives software developers access to mimik’s cloud platform. Together, edge devices including smart phones, tablets, and Internet of Things (IoT) products can act as extensions of the AWS cloud. With the IBM partnership, mimik’s technology will be included in automation and digital transformation across manufacturing, retail, IoT and healthcare.

All of mimik’s business lines fit in with Wood’s broad ‘next generation internet’ thesis, one of her big five investment themes. The company itself is private and Wood is not an investor. 

However, as Citywire noted in January, Wood has hinted in interviews that ARK is exploring the launch of a private markets strategy. 

Wood joins a relatively high profile board at mimik. Other members include  Allen Salmasi, a pioneer in mobile technology who was previously with Qualcomm, and Ori Sasson, managing director of Primera Capital, who was an investor in VMWare and other technology companies.

‘I’ve always believed in backing founders who are at the forefront of innovation,’ Wood said in a statement on her decision to join mimik. ‘At mimik, [they] have built a foundation for the next generation of cloud computing.’ 

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