Over the past 18 months, as foreign social media interference operations have dominated headlines, Twitter has been significantly more responsive and transparent than any other social media platform when it comes to these fake accounts.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter has released the names and content of all of the fake Russian accounts it’s unearthed thus far. And unlike Google, Twitter representatives have actually shown up when summoned by Congress.
But on Wednesday, Twitter revealed it had missed an account with a massive following — one that may well have been the most popular fake account on the site.
— Twitter Comms (@TwitterComms) November 29, 2018
Twitter announced Wednesday night that the @putinRF_Eng account, which had been live since 2012 and claimed to be the official feed of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was actually fraudulent.
The account had breached Twitter’s “impersonation policy,” primarily because it claimed to be the “official twitter [sic] channel for President of the Russian Federation.”
That impersonation, however, allowed the account to gain over one million followers as of earlier this year — a significantly larger following than any of the fake Russian accounts removed thus far.
The entire saga surrounding the suspension in an exercise in the bizarre. For instance, the account itself never published much more than anodyne content, including statements from Putin, links to official governmental pages, and policies pertaining to things like economic growth and conservation management.
To wit, the account’s pinned tweet was simply a link to Putin’s annual news conference. And its very first tweet set the tone for those following, reading simply, “Congratulations to US President-elect Barack Obama.”
It was precisely the account’s innocuous posts, though, that allowed @putinRF_Eng to amass the following it did. It’s also a similar approach used by other fake accounts — posting innocuous material, gaining a following, and then eventually turning to posting more inflammatory material — elsewhere.
And that approach even prompted multiple media outlets to treat it like an official mouthpiece for the Kremlin.
Other fake Russian accounts, of course, managed to worm their way into multiple American media stories during the 2016 election, including outlets like NBC, ABC, and USA Today. But the @putinRF_Eng account was a league apart. Business Insider ran not one but two entire stories dedicated to the account, both of which were predicated on it being Putin’s official Twitter feed. Neither of the stories have been updated or removed.
And that wasn’t all. As Gizmodo’s Tom McKay summarized, the account worked its way into all number of outlets — and even gulled other world leaders.
Bloomberg linked to the account alongside an official op-ed from Putin in 2017, and it’s occasionally been cited in a number of other reports. Politicians fell for it too, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who tagged it in several posts earlier this year. Numerous other people who were at one point or another very mad online about the Russians have also tagged the account, like Irish boxer Michael Conlan.
The bad news, though, is that Twitter allowed an account posturing as the Russian leader — one of the most important heads of state today — to amass over one million followers over six years, an account that was only removed after Russian officials brought it to Twitter’s attention.
Even worse? A separate Twitter account, @PutinRF, has attracted over 2.2 million followers since 2011. Like the account removed this week, @PutinRF is not verified, and posts much of the same anodyne content.
And as of earlier this year, the @PutinRF account only followed three accounts, Business Insider noted: the verified account of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, the verified feed of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the account that was suspended this week. Not a great indicator of a feed’s veracity, if one of the three accounts it follows turns out to be a fake as well.