The Kremlin-backed Russian Internet Research Agency operated dozens of Twitter accounts masquerading as local American news sources that collectively garnered more than half-a-million followers. More than 100 news outlets also published stories containing those handles in the run-up to the election, and some of them were even tweeted by a top presidential aide. These news imposter accounts, which are part of the 2,752 now-suspended accounts that Twitter Inc. has publicly disclosed to be tied to the IRA, show how the Russian group sought to build local communities of followers to disseminate messages.
Many of the news imposter accounts amassed their following by tweeting headlines from real news sites, while others sought to represent certain communities. They targeted a diverse set of regions across the political spectrum, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston. Several of the accounts were impersonating local news outlets in swing states, like @TodayPittsburgh, @TodayMiami and @TodayCincinnati.
There were about 40 news imposter accounts out of the 2,752 Twitter accounts that the company identified as being tied to the IRA. Twitter has deactivated all of those accounts and removed any data on the accounts from third-party sources. Information on the details of the accounts was gathered from Meltwater, a data intelligence firm that monitors social media. Details on the contents of the tweets are from Facebook posts that were synced with the users' Twitter accounts. Some of the followers of the accounts could be bots, and the same bots or users could have followed multiple imposter accounts.
Twitter did not verify any of the 2,752 accounts, according to a company spokeswoman. Twitter says it's taking steps to stop malicious actors on its platform.
"We take seriously reports that the power of our service was misused by a foreign actor for the purpose of influencing the U.S. presidential election and undermining public faith in the democratic process," the company said in an emailed statement. "Twitter believes that any activity of that kind-regardless of magnitude-is intolerable, and we agree that we must do better to prevent it."
Weslie Viddaurri is one of the people who followed one of these fake news accounts, @TodayNYCity. He had no idea it was linked to the Russian-based troll farm. The account had more than 60,000 followers and claimed to be "New York City's local news on Twitter. Breaking news, sports, events and international news." Many of the account's tweets linked to breaking news stories from legitimate local news sites, like the New York Daily News and the New York Times.
Viddaurri signed up for Twitter three years go. He lives in the small town of Spavinaw, Oklahoma, where he's a machinist at a company that makes airplanes. He used to check Twitter almost every day to read the news, until he decided to quit last month (though he didn't delete his account). Twitter recently revealed that more than 36,000 Russian-linked accounts generated about 1.4 million automated, election-related Tweets. Viddaurri says the recent revelations have turned him away from Twitter.
"I assumed that there was more real people and real stuff on social media than there really is. It's just so fake. It has been disheartening. I wish Twitter had been more vigilant on vetting people that become members," said Viddaurri, who is 50. "I don't trust Twitter news anymore."
Viddaurri followed almost 4,500 Twitter accounts. He followed news sites, public figures and politicians on all sides of the political spectrum. Bloomberg LP is developing a global breaking news network for the Twitter service.
Lawmakers berated social media companies for taking too long to recognize the seriousness of manipulation. People tied to the Russian government used Facebook, Google and Twitter to spread content crafted to sow social discord in America. By operating fake news accounts targeted toward certain regions, the IRA was able to amass followers in specific populations and push messages to them.
@BlackNewsOutlet, one of the fake accounts, had more than 40,000 followers and had a description of "Freedom is never given; it is won. #BlackLivesMatter." Tweets from this account frequently posted news about social unrest or headlines to incite anger. A retweeted post from @BlackNewsOutlet on Oct. 19, 2016 read: "How many more black lives needed to change the rotten police systems?"
The accounts amassed influential followers. Sebastian Gorka, a former deputy assistant to President Donald Trump, had retweeted several posts from @tpartynews, one of the Kremlin-linked accounts that had more than 20,000 followers. At the end of 2016 Gorka retweeted a post from @tpartynews that read: "The era of the pajama boy is over January 20th and the alpha males are back." The post refers to one of Gorka's catchphrases. "Pajama Boy" refers to a meme that advocated for the legislative agenda of Barack Obama. Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20.
There were both left-leaning and right-leaning accounts. One of them, @redlanews, which had almost 10,000 followers, said its author was "Red Louisiana News", with a biography that read: "Conservative; Right and proud; Christian. Love my country and will stand against liberals and socialists." The account tweeted news from outlets like Breitbart and wrote incendiary posts before the election. One of them read: "Hillary Clinton believes in white supremacy. The only racist here it's her Corrupt lying politician #HillarysEmails." Another tweet from the account in early 2016 tagged Trump in the post: "@realDonaldTrump Ted Cruz will destroy our economy and military might with his plans. The only way to fight islamists is Trump way!" The @MissouriNewsUS account, which had almost 6,000 followers, had a description of one hashtag: #NeverHilary. Another handle, @NewYorkDem, said it was for "New York, uniting Liberals since 1624!"
From the beginning of 2016 until Election Day, Tweets from those accounts were cited by more than 100 news organizations. One month after the election, the Washington Post included an embedded tweet from @ChicagoDailyNew.
The opinionated news accounts like @redlanews and @tpartynews followed a similar strategy to the @Ten_GOP account linked to the IRA, which posed as a group for Tennessee Republicans. It had over 100,000 followers, was retweeted by some of Trump's aides, and posed as a patriotic American. It overtly lauded Trump while attacking Hillary Clinton. This account was a focus of the House Intelligence Committee during the November hearings on social media companies. Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, asked Twitter to give a complete catalog of tweets that came from the pro-Trump @Ten_GOP account.
It's hard for researchers to know why the news imposter accounts were created, since the full history of tweets is gone. Researchers have concluded that many of the IRA-linked accounts were created to sow social discord, by trying to "put left-wing people further to the left and right-wing people further to the right," said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab. "It's that attempt to amplify the differences in society."
Researchers say another purpose of the accounts was to establish them as trusted news sources, and then activate them later to spread propaganda and disinformation. Troll factories have taken that approach before. During the escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine in 2014, Nimmo observed various online forums and platforms linked to Russian troll factories that would ingratiate themselves in the pro-Ukrainian community by posting favorable information. Then after gaining credibility, those sites would shift their tone to write stories that expressed discontent with Ukraine.
In fact, Nimmo says these news imposter accounts may have been created for an operation that never happened. A U.S. intelligence report concluded that the Russian government was expecting Hillary Clinton to win the election and were prepared to call into question the validity of the results. Pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP on election night in anticipation of her victory, according to the report. These news imposter accounts could have aided those efforts to undermine the election results by promoting certain hashtags and topics like "voter fraud" or "rigged election." By having a network of local news accounts across the country, the Kremlin would be able to distribute propaganda at scale that could galvanize local populations to protest, according to Nimmo. A Russian-linked Facebook group attempted to organize anti-immigrant and anti-Hillary Clinton protests in Texas shortly before the November elections.
The majority of the imposter news accounts were created more than a year before the 2016 U.S. elections. The history of tweets and engagement with real users improves the placement of the account and its posts in Twitter's search results, according to Kris Shaffer, a data scientist doing research for University of Mary Washington and the Data for Democracy. That means that if the account does push major disinformation campaigns, it is less likely to be blocked.
Shaffer's analysis of the accounts found that several of the imposter news accounts also tweeted during the French presidential election. He surfaced about 41 Tweets from accounts including @WorldNewsPoli, @TodayMiami, @DetroitDailyNew, and @ChicagoDailyNew. Most of the posts were retweets of local news articles, but more than a quarter of them included stories from truthfeed.com, a known disinformation site, according to Shaffer. Those stories were mostly attacking Emmanuel Macron, who won the election, and biased toward Marine Le Pen, a far-right politician in France.
After the revelations of Russian influence, Viddaurri said he no longer knows what to believe online. With Twitter out of his regular routine, he only checks Facebook occasionally to stay in touch with friends and family. "Thanks to the whole election of 2016, social media got ruined," Viddaurri said.