Russia's social-media trolling operation began stepping up its Twitter presence to new heights in late July 2017 -- more than eight months after sowing discord and disinformation in the 2016 presidential election.
The burst of activity -- revealed in a new, comprehensive dataset of nearly 3 million tweets -- had an overriding focus over the ensuing three months: popularizing headlines and news stories that were originally authored by a U.S.-based news site called Truthfeed that supports President Donald Trump and specializes in hyper-partisan, factually incorrect stories.
By Oct. 22, 2017, just hours before Twitter closed nearly all of the known accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency's troll farm in St. Petersburg, Russia, Truthfeed content accounted for about 95 percent of the accounts' English-language activity, the dataset shows. Special counsel Robert Mueller in February indicted the Russian agency and 13 individuals on charges of interfering in the 2016 U.S. election.
"For a period of time, Truthfeed was central to their entire effort," says Darren Linvill, an associate professor of communication at Clemson University. Linvill and Patrick Warren, an associate professor of economics at Clemson, released the dataset of the troll farm's activity on July 31 in partnership with the news site FiveThirtyEight.
There's no evidence that Truthfeed's staff members were aware of the Russian tweeting. Each tweet pointed to a separate, now-defunct website that was republishing more than 50 Truthfeed stories a day. That site, called ReportSecret.com, appears to have been connected to the troll-farm operation.
Terms of service
Truthfeed publishes a syndication feed, which lets other sites gather and republish its stories, but the website's terms of service say that its content is "the exclusive property of Truthfeed and its licensors." It's unclear whether ReportSecret.com was authorized to republish Truthfeed content. The U.S. site, and one of its primary writers, Amy Moreno, didn't respond to emails seeking comment.
Archived versions of the ReportSecret site listed its Twitter handle as @SecretReportt, which is one of the 2,752 accounts associated with the Russian trolling operation that Twitter provided last year to congressional investigators. Messages sent by Bloomberg News to still-active Facebook and LinkedIn accounts that were also listed on ReportSecret's website received no response.
It's not clear why the tweeting increased after July 2017 or why the Russian troll farm gravitated toward Truthfeed's content, amid a sea of other dubious websites that label untrue information as news. Clemson's Linvill, who has spent months studying the troll farm's tweets, says he believes it signaled a change in strategy for the Russians. For much of 2014 and 2015, he says, the trolling operation spent a lot of time developing its own content. The operation even had an art department to churn out images, memes and new websites, which would have been costly and time-consuming, he says.
'Doing it ourselves'
"They were putting a lot of effort into something they didn't have to, because Americans were already doing it ourselves," Linvill says. "We have plenty of divisive content and plenty of content that is dubious in its basis in fact. We have a lot of sites out there doing this, especially Truthfeed."
The data that Linvill and Warren compiled, which include nearly all of the troll farm's tweets since the middle of 2015, offer the clearest picture yet of Russian disinformation efforts on Twitter. Those efforts have been difficult to piece together in part because Twitter deleted the accounts after discovering them, thus expunging most traces of their activity. Twitter declined to comment.
Linvill and Warren obtained the data by performing a number of intricate searches in a social-media monitoring tool that may have inadvertently left the deleted tweets visible.
Bloomberg's analysis of the data show that the troll accounts helped amplify a number of Truthfeed's misleading articles:
A July 31, 2017 story headlined "BOMBSHELL STUDY: Voter Fraud May Have Resulted in Hillary Winning New Hampshire" claimed that "thousands of illegal votes were counted." But the study cited in the article mentioned New Hampshire only once, saying it didn't obtain any data from the state. The Russian troll farm tweeted the story 33 times.
An Aug. 7, 2017 story said that a Pennsylvania man killed his neighbor because the neighbor had Trump signs in his yard. "The liberal left has lost their minds and are now killing their neighbors for supporting Trump," said the article, which cited a local news report. But that report said the neighbors' fight didn't involve politics. The farm tweeted that one 71 times.
An Aug. 12, 2017 piece took aim at Starbucks, which had announced an initiative to hire refugees. "WTF?? Refugees With TB are Interviewing at Starbucks," declared the Truthfeed article, which claimed the refugees interviewing at the coffee chain had tuberculosis. (It cited a Breitbart News article that mentioned a three-year-old study that found 43 percent of Sub-Sahara African refugees in San Diego County tested positive for TB -- though it had no information on Starbucks' job applicants.) The trolls tweeted that story 90 times.
The troll farm's accounts moved with stunning speed. One, @IvaassNTR, wasn't following any other accounts when it first tweeted on July 27, 2017, at 2:40 p.m. in St. Petersburg. After tweeting a few times, the account fell silent for 15 minutes. When it tweeted again, it was now following 986 other accounts.
Around this time, the troll farm's activity far outpaced anything it was doing before the American election. During the three-week stretch from July 29 to Aug. 18, 2017, its accounts tweeted 177,105 English-language posts, which was three times greater than the three weeks preceding the Nov. 8, 2016, election.
The troll farm increased its focus on tweeting about Truthfeed articles over time, the dataset shows. Truthfeed articles account for at least 24 percent of the troll farm's English-language Twitter activity on July 31, 2017, before rising to at least 44 percent 10 days later, according to Bloomberg's analysis of the data.
After Twitter shut down a number of the accounts in mid-August the troll farm activated several new ones that focused almost exclusively on the republished Truthfeed articles, the dataset shows.
Truthfeed itself has remained something of a mystery. Researchers at Harvard's Berkman Klein Center found that the site's popularity on Facebook quickly surged past many established media outlets like the Wall Street Journal and ABC News during the run-up to the 2016 election.
The site doesn't disclose its owners or financial backers. For several months in late 2017 and 2018, the site shared some technical connections with the personal website of Katrina Pierson, a spokeswoman for Trump's 2016 campaign who's now working as a senior adviser to his 2020 re-election campaign.
Archived versions of Pierson's website show that it and Truthfeed used the same account with a service called MailChimp, which helps publishers offer their readers email updates. (Pierson's site now uses its own MailChimp account.) Neither Pierson nor her attorney responded to requests for comment. Pierson's attorney said in a letter to Bloomberg last year that Pierson "has no affiliation or connection with Truthfeed, save that her website formerly shared the same web platform."
-- Bloomberg News
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