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Russia’s Twitter Activity May Have Been Worse Than We Thought — But How Much Worse?

DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

A new study by cybersecurity company Symantec made waves last week with a new study claiming that Russia’s activities on Twitter in the run-up to the 2016 election.

The study concluded that Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) funded by Russian operative Yevgeny Prigozhin had an “incredibly successful” run on Twitter “well in advance” of the 2016 election. But how much bigger? And could the difference have swayed voter decision-making on Nov. 6?

The House Intelligence Committee notes that during its “November 2017 open hearing, the Minority introduced into the record 2,752 Twitter accounts that Twitter identified as connected to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Kremlin-linked ‘troll farm.’” (RELATED: Did Russian Facebook Ads Actually Have Any Effect On The 2016 Presidential Election?)

The Committee also found “more than 130,00 tweets by accounts linked to the IRA.”

Symantec, however, found a larger number: “3,836 Twitter accounts and nearly 10 million tweets” linked to the IRA that “had amassed almost 6.4 million followers and were following 3.2 million accounts” were identified by Twitter. And of that 3,836 total, there were 123 “main accounts,” or “‘fake news’ outlets masquerading as regional news outlets” and 3,713 auxiliary accounts, or accounts masquerading as individuals to spread content.

That’s 1,084 more IRA-linked accounts and 9.87 million more IRA-linked tweets than originally suspected by the House Intelligence Committee.

A smartphone shows a tweet by US President Donald Trump saying "Tremendous success tonight" after most of the result of the US midterm elections were called by US Media on November 06, 2018 in Washington, DC. - President Donald Trump called Tuesday's midterm congressional elections a "tremendous success," despite his Republican Party losing control of the House of Representatives. The Republicans held on to the Senate and narrowly survived a number of big individual races, including in Florida. The Democrats now control the lower house for the first time in eight years. (ERIC BARADAT/AFP/Getty Images)

A smartphone shows a tweet by US President Donald Trump saying “Tremendous success tonight” … (ERIC BARADAT/AFP/Getty Images)

A Twitter spokesperson said Twitter is “the only company to offer this level of granularity and transparency” after releasing these new numbers but did not say how they identified the users as linked to the IRA.

In total, these Russian accounts garnered about 6.4 million followers and created about 10 million tweets, most of which were posted months before the election but got more retweets a month before the election in October.

One profile that tweeted over 130,000 times had a description that read, “No more #HappyHolidays sh*t!!! It’s #MerryChristmas!!!!! #BuildTheWall #DrainTheSwamp #MAGAus¸ @realDonaldTrump.”

Another read, “No black person is ugly #BRONZE #BlackLivesMatter #BlackToLive.”

Others disguised themselves as local news: “New York City’s local news on Twitter. Breaking news, sports, events and international news. Tweet us or DM.”

The five most-tweeted words from these accounts were, in order: “MAGA,” “BLM,” Hillary, Obama and ISIS.

The fake accounts also successfully organized rallies every month leading up to the election. The most rallies (sometimes over 60 per month) were organized in periods between June and July and again in October and November of 2016. (RELATED: Meet The Conservatives Who Want To Regulate Big Tech)

Symantec called Russia’s campaign against U.S. politics “highly professional,” explaining that “aside from the sheer volume of tweets generated over a period of years, its orchestrators developed a streamlined operation that automated the publication of new content and leveraged a network of auxiliary accounts to amplify its impact. … The sheer scale and impact of this propaganda campaign is obviously of deep concern to voters in all countries.”

While these numbers are obviously larger than originally thought, thus creating a stronger cause for concern among both social media users and tech companies, it is doubtful that these fake news accounts and tweets were enough to sway the U.S. presidential election, as the media argued after Trump won.

President Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul told Salon magazine that Symantec’s study highlights Putin’s attempt to break up states “as you have in the UK, the breakup of alliances and NATO, the breakup of the European Union, those are all things that Putin thinks are in his national interest. Tragically, he had some wins lately.”

But did Putin’s bots really succeed in breaking up U.S. politics as many in the media have implied?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual TV marathon question-and-answer session with Russians in Moscow, on December 16, 2010. (ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

Symantec’s research includes a new statistic: While the most popular English-language websites linked to tweets from these IRA accounts led users to Twitter and YouTube, tweets also often shared links from popular news websites such as a Kansas NBC-affiliate news site called KNST, a San Francisco news site called Kron4, The Seattle Times, Breitbart, Daily Mail, CBS Chicago and more.

Journalist Tim Pool, who has spoken extensively on the issue of Russian activity on social media, said, “Many activist groups and special interests do share real news in an effort to surface certain conversations. NBC previously reported that Russia is trying to foment racial animosity so by sharing certain stories, on say police brutality, they can push divisive conversations to the forefront and cause problems for the U.S.”

So while Symantec refers to these IRA accounts as “fake news accounts,” some of their tweets did, in fact, include links to real news. A study by Columbia University that tracked 2.8 million article shares on Twitter found that 59% — or six in 10 — users who shared said articles did not actually read beyond the headlines.

And according to research conducted by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, most people — both Democrats and Republicans — can identify fake news versus real news because of their skepticism toward sources that are not considered mainstream.

Another study published in 2019 by science journal ScienceAdvances found that in a pool of over 1,000 social media users, less than 10% shared stories from fake news users and pages; those who did were likely to be over the age of 65. Users over 65 were also seven times more likely to share fake news than users between the ages of 18 and 29.

Using unique behavioral data … we find, first, that sharing fake news was quite rare during the 2016 U.S. election campaign,” the study explains.

While bots accelerate the spread of fake news on sites like Twitter and Facebook, they likely did not influence readers’ judgment on deciding what news to trust. It is impossible to say that such a phenomenon influenced voter decisions in 2016.

What is perhaps equally concerning is the fact that the IRA profited off their fake accounts and interactions on social media. Symantec also found that at least one of the 3,836 Russian accounts made a “substantial income” through a monetization website called Shorte.st, which claims that its users can earn up to $14 for shortening links through their application, so as long as it gets at least 1,000 clicks.

So while attempting to further divide Americans by promoting tweets specific to both left and right-wing ideologies, Russian operatives were also profiting off their most successful social media posts, some of which contained real news rather than fake.