Here’s a closer look at how fake Russian accounts spread beyond social media

Here's a closer look at how fake Russian accounts spread beyond social media

The fake accounts run out of Russia, as we now know, didn't remain only on social media. (CREDIT: AP/JEFF CHIU)
The fake accounts run out of Russia, as we now know, didn't remain only on social media. (CREDIT: AP/JEFF CHIU)

Between the staggering new numbers on total social media impact and revelations on the ever-larger reach of on-the-ground protests, it’s become apparent that the more we learn about the fake social media accounts run out of Russia, the greater their impact appears. As such, it’s become increasingly clear that these fake accounts didn’t remain relegated solely to the social media sphere — and that they managed to spread due not only to unwitting activists, but also due to outlets and journalists, as ThinkProgress has detailed, who managed to include these accounts in stories without realizing they were created by trolls in St. Petersburg.

One case serves as something of a microcosm for how these accounts managed to work their way beyond social media, and continue to fool reporters and readers alike. Last October, a tweet from an account called @Crystal1Johnson went viral. Gaining nearly 100,000 combined retweets and likes, the “Crystal Johnson” account posted a screenshot of a Facebook post showing a police officer and a man, the latter of whom wrote that, as an employee of Comcast, he’d been stopped by police for suspected theft. As the “Crystal Johnson” account commented, “When It’s slowly becoming illegal for black people to work #BlackTwitter.”

A few hours later, an article appeared on The Daily Dot from journalist Brianna Holt, describing “a Facebook post of a black man being given a ticket [that] went viral.” “What can black people do these days without being accused of a crime?,” Holt wrote. “Apparently you can remove ‘go to work’ from the list.”

The only link the Daily Dot article shared was from the “Crystal Johnson” account. There was no link to the Facebook post, or to any other media coverage confirming the account shared.

One problem: Last month, we learned that the “Crystal Johnson” account was one of the fake accounts run out of Russia.

ThinkProgress was the first outlet to point to the ties between Russia and the “Crystal Johnson” account, which was the fourth-most popular fake account run out of Russia thus far identified — as well as the one retweeted twice by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. But The Daily Dot’s piece from October 2016 serves as something of a case study for how these accounts built audiences for themselves beyond Twitter in and of itself — especially as Congress turns its sights toward how social media platforms served as platforms for abuse and discord for Russian operatives.

For instance, it remains unclear how much of the story shared by “Crystal Johnson” is actually accurate. In April 2016, six months prior to the story from The Daily Dot, the outlet ATTN: cited the Facebook post eventually shared by “Crystal Johnson,” saying it was written by a man named Joshua Houser. But the photo and Houser’s account have since been removed, and ATTN: could not confirm the Facebook post’s authenticity.

A spokesperson for the Franklin Park Police Department, whose officer appeared in the photo with Houser, told ThinkProgress that Houser “wasn’t arrested or cited – somebody called in a suspicious person walking between two homes, and an officer went over and just asked him who he was working for. He told him who he was working for, and that was the end of it.”

However, Tyree Boyd-Pates, a curator with the California African American Museum, saw the April 2016 post and tweeted it out, with some 26,000 combined retweets and likes resulting:

In October 2016, six months later, the “Crystal Johnson” account lifted Boyd-Pates’s tweet and pasted it as the Russian account’s own. Shortly thereafter, the Russian tweet ended with four times the reach as Boyd-Pates’s tweet, amplifying the story that much further – and working its way into Holt’s story.

Boyd-Pates and the California African American Museum both declined to comment, but Holt, who now works at BuzzFeed, defended her decision to unwittingly cite the Russian account:

As you mentioned, since this was over a year ago, and I was interning and [in] college at the time, I cannot remember if there were other sources or not. This was one of SEVERAL pieces I have written since then. I also do not have much recollection of writing it, like I said, this was so long ago, and I was writing about 3-4 articles per day as well as articles for school. Also, I cannot speak for [what] Daily Dot should do since I no longer work at Daily Dot. I suggest you reach out to a current employee for more information.

Multiple attempts to contact The Daily Dot went unanswered.

It remains unclear why the “Crystal Johnson” account waited six months after the story from ATTN: to plagiarize Boyd-Pates, and gain tens of thousands more interactions along the way. But while the tweet may not have been the most popular one pushed by these Russian accounts – that honor, thus far, appears to belong to the @TEN_GOP account – it helps highlight just how pervasive these accounts continue to be, even through 2017. It also highlights, as ThinkProgress has written, just how effectively these accounts inserted themselves into American media – and how effectively they continued to impersonate other Americans, long after the incidents in question may have taken place.


UPDATE (11/1/17): After ThinkProgress’s report, The Daily Dot added the word “Debunked” to their post on the alleged incident pushed by the “Crystal Johnson” account. The piece also includes an editor’s note:

ThinkProgress investigation found that the @Crystal1Johnson account was a fake account linked to Russian trolls. The account has since been deleted. In failing to trace back the original source of the tweet, to reach out for comment, and to document the tweet’s viral trajectory, we fell short of our editorial standards. Given the story’s historical and educational value, we’ve decided to leave the post in its original form, and we encourage you to read the ThinkProgress report.