Russia’s disinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election relied heavily on stories produced by major American news sources to shape the online political debate, according to an analysis published Thursday.
The analysis by Columbia University social-media researcher Jonathan Albright of more than 36,000 tweets sent by Russian accounts showed that obscure or foreign news sources played a comparatively minor role, suggesting that the discussion of “fake news” during the campaign has been somewhat miscast.
Albright’s research, which he said is the most extensive to date on the news links that Russians used to manipulate the American political conversation on Twitter, bolsters observations by other analysts. Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent who is now a disinformation expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said that by linking to popular news sources, the Russians enhanced the credibility of their Twitter accounts, making it easier to manipulate audiences.
“The Kremlin, they don’t need to create a false narrative. It’s already there,” he said. “You’re just taking a narrative and elevating it.”
Some well-chronicled hoaxes reached large audiences. But Russian-controlled Twitter accounts, Albright said, were far more likely to share stories produced by widely read sources of American news and political commentary. The stories themselves were generally factually accurate, but the Russian accounts carefully curated the overall flow to highlight themes and developments that bolstered Republican Donald Trump and undermined his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Among the tweets Albright studied, the most common links were to Breitbart News, followed by The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. The list of the top 25 linked sites had a conservative bent, with the Daily Caller, Fox News and the Gateway Pundit appearing. Also popular, though not in the top 25, were direct links to a page collecting online donations for Trump’s campaign.
The Russian government-funded news site RT ranks 19th among widely linked sites; no other foreign-based site ranks among the top 25 on that list.
The timing of tweets from accounts that were part of the Russian campaign also suggests a shrewd sense of when to strike, the analysis shows. The volume of tweets shows a major spike of activity, for example, in the days after Clinton stumbled in New York on Sept. 11 while battling pneumonia, a moment that sharpened concerns about her health.
“No way we give our country to far worse version of Obama #HillarysHealth #Hillary4Prison Pneumonia is contagious,” the Russian account South Lone Star tweeted the following day.
Another finding of the analysis showed Russian accounts devoted mainly to promoting local news in 30 major cities such as San Francisco, Boston and Houston. On key days, these popular accounts — typically with more than 10,000 followers each — often would turn to politics to tout Trump’s gains in the polls, for example, or news related to the FBI investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
“They’re really trying to drive the news conversation,” Albright said. “They’re trying to set the agenda.”
Twitter declined to comment on Albright’s research, which the company had not yet had time to study. The company deleted these accounts last year amid controversy over Russia’s use of social media to influence the American election.
The tactic of linking to credible news stories also allows the occasional promotion of outright falsehoods from obscure sites, which followers of an account may accept more readily after weeks or months of linking to more familiar news sources, said several researchers. They also said that pushing content on Twitter can affect its prominence on other platforms.
Albright’s research does not make clear whether the tweets he studied came from “trolls,” which are humans working to push selected themes, or “bots,” which are computerized accounts that echo or respond to others, or some combination of the two.
Phil Howard of the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project, said: “In a good misinformation campaign, Russian bots on Twitter or fake accounts on Facebook will actually make use of the most credible news sources in America. Even news stories that debunk some political rumor can be used to keep the rumor alive.”
The latest revelations come after U.S. intelligence officials warned this week that Russia is gearing up to meddle again, this time in the November elections. Yet even as analysts urge preparation for the next round of online disinformation, major questions remain from 2016 over how Russians inserted themselves into a rollicking American political campaign without setting off more alarms in the United States — or triggering efforts to combat the disinformation effort.
The analysis by Albright, who is the research director at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and is part of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, involved analyzing tweets from accounts that Twitter told Congress in November were controlled by the Internet Research Agency, a private firm in St. Petersburg often described as Russia’s leading online troll farm. Albright also catalogued more than 11,000 links from those tweets and ranked the most popular sources. (Twitter gave Congress a second list of accounts linked to the troll farm last month, but it has not yet been made public.)
Albright’s analysis also offers insights into the timing of the Russian disinformation campaign. There was a surge of tweets and news links, for example, after the Democratic National Convention in late July but very little during a two-week period in late August that corresponds with a time when many Russians take summer vacations.
The pace picked up gradually from early September, a time when Clinton’s edge — measured at five points among likely voters in a Washington Post poll — was beginning to dwindle. The volume of tweets climbed sharply in the days after Clinton’s public stumble on Sept. 11, then again nearly a week later, on Sept. 17, when Russian accounts tweeted more than 2,000 times.
One account, named “Amelie Baldwin” and adorned with the image of a smiling blond woman who described herself as a “Wife, Mother, Patriot, Friend,” tweeted 538 times that day to more than 2,000 followers. All were retweets, which take less effort than original tweets.
One such message retweeted, “Obama trying to start WWIII to avoid a Trump presidency?” and linked to an Associated Press tweet about Syrian government allegations of a U.S. strike on forces there.
Someone reading all of the Amelie Baldwin tweets that day would have seen Clinton portrayed as a sickly, dishonest criminal under investigation by the FBI and eager to open America’s borders to dangerous immigrants. Trump, by contrast, appeared in the tweets as a bold, widely respected leader gaining in the polls with the support of gay voters and African Americans, despite being unfairly maligned by journalists.
The Amelie Baldwin account was one of many that appeared specifically geared to conservative audiences. Other accounts were focused on police violence against African Americans, liberal causes and gay and lesbian issues.
A Russian-controlled account named “KateRitterrrr” on Sept. 18 retweeted a message saying, “I am a gay Latino man voting for Trump. He’s not bought & is fighting for all of us! #MAGA #GaysForTrump #Trump2016.”
The common goal, said Albright and other researchers, was to polarize debate, pushing politically active people away from the center. Toward that end, the Russian accounts found plenty of material from U.S.-based sources of news and opinion.
“These trolls didn’t need to retweet RT and Sputnik,” Albright said. “All they needed to do was pick out certain themes and push them.”