The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Twitter to tell 677,000 users they were had by the Russians. Some signs show the problem continues.

A sign with the Twitter logo on the front of the New York Stock Exchange in 2013. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Twitter says it will notify nearly 700,000 users who interacted with accounts the company has identified as potential pieces of a propaganda effort by the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election.

The company on Friday also disclosed thousands of accounts that it said were associated with the Kremlin-linked troll farm, the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and the Russian government, adding to numbers that it released to Congress in October.

Twitter said that it had identified 3,814 IRA-linked accounts, which posted some 176,000 tweets in the 10 weeks preceding the election, and another 50,258 automated accounts connected to the Russian government, which tweeted more than a million times, while acknowledging that “such activity represents a challenge to democratic societies everywhere,” in a news release Friday afternoon.

The disclosures are the latest sign of how widely the effort to disrupt the 2016 election through disinformation permeated the services of social media companies, including Twitter, Facebook and Google. And it is yet another instance where Twitter appears to be adjusting its service in the wake of cultural shifts exposed by Russian meddling.

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U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia conducted a sophisticated campaign intended to affect the outcome of the election, which included spreading propaganda and incendiary reports on social media about subjects like police brutality, Black Lives Matter, Muslim rights and veterans issues, and hacking Democratic officials to sow discord in the country.

Twitter has been criticized for reacting slowly to the proliferation of disinformation and bad-faith accounts on the service: @TEN_GOP, an influential troll account that amassed a large following on the service by bolstering pro-Trump messages and misinformation, was reportedly the subject of impersonation complaints by the actual Republican Party of Tennessee for nearly a year before the company closed it last August, for example.

The company, along with Facebook and Google, was excoriated by lawmakers during a series of hearings on Capitol Hill in the fall, some of whom threatened legislation to address the lingering national security issues if the companies failed to take steps of their own.

At the time, Facebook acknowledged that as many as 126 million users may have seen content produced and circulated by Russian operatives. And Google disclosed for the first time that it had found 1,108 videos with 43 hours of content related to the Russian effort on YouTube.

Sen. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat from Virginia who previously has been critical of Twitter, praised its move to notify users on Friday, saying he was “encouraged to see the company beginning to take responsibility.”

Twitter spokeswoman Emily Horne said the company planned to send the notification to some 677,000 users who followed or engaged with Russian or IRA-linked accounts, but she declined to provide information on its contents.

The company also highlighted the changes it had made to its internal policing efforts, saying that it currently blocks about 250,000 logins that come from automated accounts a day. It said that in December, updated methodology allowed it to identify about 6.4 million suspicious accounts around the world per week. And the company sought to underline how small a portion of the activity on Twitter these accounts represented before the accounts were removed.

But there are some indications that malicious use of the service continues.

As the effort lead by some Republicans to curtail special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the election meddling has heated up, Russian-linked accounts helped amplify a Twitter hashtag calling for the release of a memo the group hopes will help discredit Mueller's work, according to Hamilton 68, a research firm that tracks the malicious accounts. The #releasethememo hashtag was tweeted by these accounts nearly 4,000 times in the last couple of days, the firm said.

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“We are aware of these reports and will take action on any accounts or Tweets that violate our terms of service,” Twitter said in a statement distributed by Horne.

Jonathan Albright,  research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, who studies the effects of the disinformation campaign on social media, said that some of the memes and misinformation spread by these fake accounts live on the site, after being reposted by other less-prominent accounts, in contradiction of Twitter’s assertion that all the content had been removed.

“That is patently false. The way these accounts posts have circulated and then spread back into Twitter means they’re still around,” he said. “The fact that there are thousands of posts that are easily findable is concerning.”

Albright said during a recent study he identified 3,746 tweets he said were from IRA-linked accounts that were still live on the service.

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