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Russian election meddlers started an anti-masturbation hotline, report claims

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The Russia-linked Internet Research Agency (IRA) may have tried to blackmail potential American recruits by setting up a fake anti-masturbation hotline, according to a new report prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The IRA reportedly advertised its hotline on a fake Christian Facebook page, encouraging readers to reach out if they were “struggling with the addiction to masturbation.”

This bizarre detail was part of a larger analysis of ongoing Russian political influence campaigns on social media that were produced by researchers at cybersecurity company New Knowledge, Columbia University, and Canfield Research. It’s meant to illustrate the reach and complexity of the IRA’s operations, although the report doesn’t say whether it actually worked.

As previous reports have detailed, the IRA has tied itself to American political movements and encouraged supporters to unwittingly spread divisive propaganda. It’s also cultivated relationships with individuals under the guise of supporting causes like the Trump campaign or Black Lives Matter. According to the white paper, the IRA looked for compromising information on these potential assets, “even going so far as to help create hotlines for people struggling with sexual behavior, creating an opportunity to blackmail or manipulate these individuals in the future.”

Images from IRA-run pages from Senate Intelligence Committee report

The report includes three examples of IRA posts: one posted to the fake pro-LGBT Facebook page “LGBT United” and two posted to the faux religious group “Army of Jesus.” The former was a straightforward offer of support to struggling gay, lesbian, or transgender teens. The latter two apparently pointed to a hotline for guilty masturbators. “Struggling with the addiction to masturbation? Reach out to me and we will beat it together,” said one post in a quote attributed to Jesus.

“You can’t hold hands with God when you are masturbating,” said the other. “Use our hotline if you need help.”

The researchers drew these details from a trove of IRA-related posts — including 10.4 million tweets from 3,841 accounts, 1,100 YouTube videos across 17 channels, 116,000 Instagram posts from 133 accounts, and 61,500 Facebook posts from 61 pages — provided by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Beyond the hotline details, the white paper alleges that Instagram was a “significant front” in the influence operations, especially after media reports started covering the group’s activities on Twitter and Facebook, pushing the group toward Instagram in 2017. Earlier reports have described the IRA targeting black Americans for propaganda, but the researchers here point to a particularly concerted effort on YouTube, where “by far” the most content was focused on Black Lives Matter and police brutality.

We don’t know whether anyone called the masturbation and LGBT hotlines, what kind of experience they got if they did, whether any calls produced useful information, or whether the IRA ever needed to use blackmail material at all. It’s also not clear who else may have been involved with the hotlines, if the IRA only “helped” create them — or how the researchers determined this. But if this was genuinely part of the IRA’s political influence strategy, it’s a fairly elaborate bit of subterfuge. And since the group exploited any divisive social issue, it’s not totally improbable that they’d eventually set their sights on the nofap agenda.