In April, The Daily Caller put a piece together on how “outraged Donald Trump supporters” had popularized the #FireKushner hashtag. As evidence, the piece’s author, Scott Greer, cited five tweets.
One of the tweets came from a current employee of Sputnik, the Russian propaganda outlet. A second tweet came from a woman who then worked at Sputnik.
And a third tweet came from an account revealed last week as run out of Russia.
The piece serves as something of a microcosm for just how pervasively Russian propaganda weaseled its way into American outlets over the past few years. While The Daily Caller is far from a journalistic lodestar, a ThinkProgress investigation found that fake Twitter accounts run out of Russia had wormed their way into dozens of outlets from across the American political spectrum over the past two years.
That is to say, the tweets accomplished what the Kremlin’s Soviet predecessors, who wooed their own American reporters, could have only hoped to accomplish. Counted by outlets alone, the fake social media operations appear the most pervasive foreign propaganda efforts in recent history – even if their efficacy remains unclear. “The internet is such a multiplier that I think it would be hard to draw an [historic] analogy,” Dan Kennedy, an associate professor with Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, told ThinkProgress.
While many of the tweets – including the ones retweeted by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey – appear largely anodyne, writers and outlets nonetheless helped spread the Russian Twitter accounts to their readers, with the accounts then spreading divisive or inflammatory messaging to their new followers.
Not all of the sharing was necessarily positive. Certain outlets put together pieces criticizing the accounts, such as The Daily Beast or Huffington Post. And some of the tweets, such as the ones featured in the Kansas City Star, Townhall, or The Hill used neutral language or quotes from public figures.
But many of those that ended up in English-language media were clearly aimed at stoking socio-political divisions, with writers and outlets leaning on the tweets as evidence of ongoing tensions across the U.S.
For instance, numerous outlets pointed to the @TEN_GOP account – one of the most popular fake accounts revealed thus far – as evidence of frustrations on the American right. Outlets like NBC shared conspiracy theories about vote-rigging from the account, while an article from ABC cited the account for praising those protesting Planned Parenthood. Another piece, from The San Diego Union-Tribune, pointed to the account as evidence of the “many people” complaining about Hillary Clinton’s health, and a piece in USA Today cited the account as evidence that “Twitter took notice” of a Secret Service agent saying she wouldn’t take a bullet for President Donald Trump.
Reporters also lifted other accounts revealed as Russian for their stories. One 2016 piece from ThinkProgress featured the @Crystal1Johnson account run out of Russia discussing high school football players supporting Colin Kaepernick. The Boston Globe also featured one, from the Russian @Pamela_Moore13 account, in its round-up of those slamming Stephen Colbert. And a second piece from The Daily Caller featured a tweet from @Pamela_Moore13 – which calls refugees “rapefugees” – after only its second paragraph.
Though certain tweets from fake accounts run out of Russia were, in some instances, bundled with other tweets – such as this February piece from Fox News, or this June article from Rolling Stone – many outlets placed the fake tweets as centerpieces for their stories. An April article from Vocativ, for instance, pointed to @TEN_GOP as primary evidence of “[r]ight-wing Americans … joining their far-right French compatriots in a social media campaign” to elect Marine Le Pen.
And a piece from The Telegraph not only cited @TEN_GOP as evidence of concerns of Clinton’s health, but further described the account as “the Tennessee branch of the Republican Party,” even though the account was run out of an office in St. Petersburg. Another piece from The Telegraph cited @TEN_GOP in a piece about complaints about questioning the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
A handful of outlets managed to feature Russian tweets in multiple stories, such as Fox News and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Breitbart. One of the Breitbart articles in question also revealed that @USA_Gunslinger, another account run out of Russia, had specifically targeted the writer putting the piece together, writing that “@USA_Gunslinger set us the graphic [of Hillary Clinton] with snarky commentary[.]” Remarkably, a January piece from the Los Angeles Times’s Nina Agrawal managed to cite two different Russian accounts in a single write-up of “[s]ocial media users” criticizing Starbucks for its policy of hiring refugees.
One Oct. 2016 post from The Daily Dot even leaned on one of the Russian accounts as primary evidence that a black employee from Comcast had been arrested simply for doing his job. Requests for comment from The Daily Dot went unanswered.
In many cases, reporters appear to have discovered the tweets themselves. However, as with the Breitbart piece mentioned above, certain accounts also reached out to writers and reporters. In another instance, ABC’s Stacy Chen specifically tried to contact @USA_Gunslinger to obtain a video the account had shared. Chen told ThinkProgress that the Russian account denied her request.
Hi hope you're safe! I work for ABC News did u take this video, if so may we use it for all ABC affiliates and platforms with credit to you?
— Stacy Chen (@stacyytchen) August 23, 2017
Naturally, the two outlets that appeared to push fake accounts run out of Russia most prominently were themselves Russian propaganda organs. RT featured @TEN_GOP on everything from Donald Trump to terrorism in Europe, while Sputnik highlighted @Pamela_Moore13 on topics ranging from CNN to billboards in Texas.
To be sure, using tweets from anonymous or unverified accounts – or, as in The Telegraph’s case above, tweets from accounts posing as other organizations – has become something approaching common practice in English-language journalism over the past few years. But given the recent revelations, according to Kennedy, the practice of combing and inserting anonymous, un-verified tweets into stories may have to change.
“I’d like to see news organizations restrict their use of tweets to those they have made some effort to verify as legitimate,” he said. “That should have been their practice all along. I find it strange that media outlets that would never publish anonymous letters to the editor think nothing of embedding pseudonymous content from Twitter and other social media platforms.”
Thus far, only a handful of outlets have issued corrections or editor’s notes alerting their readers that the Twitter accounts featured weren’t actually American. An update from Townhall noted that the Russian tweet had been deleted, while Paste Magazine wrote that @TEN_GOP has now been tied to Russia. The aforementioned piece from ThinkProgress has also been updated, and the author of a recent piece from The Guardian featuring a Russian tweet said their article would be updated.
The vast majority of stories, however, remain as they were – lumping these fake accounts out of Russia in with the rest of the Twitter feeds cited, or even, in the case of Vocativ, continuing to claim that the account cited is an “American fan account.”
“I’d like to see each of these organizations run a good, strong article explaining what went wrong and what steps they are taking to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” added Kennedy. “Once they have done that, each article containing troll content could include a brief editor’s note linking to that story.”
As it is, the author of the Daily Caller piece, in which the majority of the “outraged Trump supporters” cited were actually from accounts tied to Russia, failed to respond to ThinkProgress’s questions. However, when asked why the tweet revealed as Russian hadn’t been removed – or why The Daily Caller hadn’t issued an editor’s note – the outlet’s editor-in-chief, Geoffrey Ingersoll, said that The Daily Caller “didn’t add a note because, as you can clearly see, the whole thing is insanely idiotic.”
Shortly thereafter, The Daily Caller removed the tweet and added an editor’s note.
But the Russian tweet pointing to “rapefugees,” featured prominently in another story from The Daily Caller, remains up on the site.