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How a Russian troll sowed conflict using fake photos and news coverage

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., right, with Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, center, and Denny Heck, D-Wash., questions Facebook's General Counsel Colin Stretch, Twitter's Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett, and Google's Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker about the Russian ads during a House Intelligence Committee task force hearing on Capitol Hill last week.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., right, with Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, center, and Denny Heck, D-Wash., questions Facebook's General Counsel Colin Stretch, Twitter's Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett, and Google's Senior Vice President and General Counsel Kent Walker about the Russian ads during a House Intelligence Committee task force hearing on Capitol Hill last week. AP

It looked like a Twitter account of the Tennessee GOP, but it was actually a prime example of how the Russia troll farm operated – garnering hundreds of shares and widespread media coverage for messaging that wasn’t just false, but came from a fabricated account.

And it happened not during the presidential campaign, but this past August.

TEN_GOP boasted 145,000 followers when it posted two tweets of photos falsely representing the size of the crowd at a rally for President Donald Trump. When it was called out on the false photos – after they had already been shared hundreds of times – the person running the account deleted the posts and offered an apology while mocking “loser liberals.”

Last week, Twitter identified the account as one of 2,752 accounts linked to Russia’s “Internet Research Agency” troll farm. Twitter also identified more than 36,000 bots that tweeted 1.4 million times during the election, while Facebook told Congress that Russian operatives may have reached 126 million of its users.

McClatchy has identified eight stories that included tweets from accounts that have now been identified as Russian trolls. An entire story was written based on this particular account, misstating that it was the unofficial account of the Tennessee GOP, while the other stories embedded a troll tweet as part of reaction within a larger story. Those tweets have now been removed.

McClatchy was one of several news organizations, including the Washington Post, AP and BuzzFeed, that wrote about false tweets by Russian troll accounts such as TEN_GOP, and experts say it perfectly illustrates what the Russian trolls hope to accomplish – division.

“The goal has been to keep the tension and conflict levels as high as possible, so you just keep hammering at those notes that have resonated,” said Adam Segal, director of digital and cyber policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank.

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On Aug. 22, TEN_GOP posted two tweets about crowd sizes at Trump’s rally in Phoenix. One tweet showed an aerial shot of a massive crowd with the caption: “Massive crowd waiting outside the Trump rally in Phoenix! But...but...media says everyone hates Trump. I’m confused. #PhoenixRally”

The other tweet showed a pair of photos side-by-side. One showed a smattering of people, while the other was the same aerial shot the account tweeted earlier. “Anti-Trump crowd vs. pro Trump crowd #PhoenixRally #TrumpinPhx,” the account tweeted.

The first tweet was retweeted more than 800 times and liked more than 1,000 times. But some people began responding that the aerial photo of the huge group was actually taken in Cleveland in 2016 during a parade celebrating the Cavaliers winning the NBA championship.

The account deleted the tweet and apologized for the mistake in a series of tweets:

“I saw this photo circulating online. I deleted my post as soon as I found out it was fake,” the account tweeted. “It’s amazing the amount of loser liberals attacking me now. ... I apologize to all my followers for any inconvenience this mistake may have caused.”

On these particular tweets, Segal said he could see the strategy coming from two ways. The account could’ve meant the false crowd tweets to give a “bandwagon for people to jump on,” showing widespread support for Trump and encouraging others to join the party. The other possibility is the troll wanted to get caught in the lie, thereby prompting Trump’s opponents to use it as evidence his supporters bent the truth. The resulting media coverage of the lie would stir Trump supporters to respond defensively, creating a vicious cycle of conflict – all started by a Russian troll.

Segal said many of the Russian troll accounts likely don’t much care about influencing future elections, but wanted to “rub salt in the wound” by “continually exploiting the divisions of society in the U.S.” He suggested media companies be wary of using Twitter accounts as a basis for or way to add to stories.

The account was created in November 2015, and its tweets also included material arguing that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election, supporting the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and promoting Islamophobic messages. Several prominent current and former members of Trump’s staff retweeted its material before it was shut down, including Donald Trump Jr., White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway and ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

Twitter officials said in a statement to a U.S. Senate committee last week that it has now implemented “dedicated teams” to “enhance the quality of the information our users see and to block malicious activity whenever and wherever we find it.”

Sen. Diane Feinstein did not hold back when questioning representatives of Google, Facebook and Twitter on Nov. 1. “You’ve created these platforms…and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it…or we will,” sh

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071, @kateirby

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