Report: Twitter Was Possibly Used 'More Extensively Than Facebook in Russian Influence Campaign'

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Credit: Illustration: Ad Age; photographer: Misha Friedman/Bloomberg

Facebook has lately been taking plenty of heat for its use during the U.S. presidential election cycle by Kremlin-aligned groups to spread false information about Hillary Clinton and pro-Trump messages—but now Twitter is facing fresh scrutiny for the same reasons.

A story on the front page of this morning's New York Times under the headline "Twitter Seen as Key Battlefield In Russian Influence Campaign"—tweaked for the web to "Twitter, With Accounts Linked to Russia, to Face Congress Over Role in Election"—reports on new research conducted by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, "a bipartisan initiative of the German Marshall Fund, a public policy research group in Washington." Daisuke Wakabayashi and Scott Shane of the Times write that,

Twitter may have been used even more extensively than Facebook in the Russian influence campaign last year. In addition to Russia-linked Twitter accounts that posed as Americans, the platform was also used for large-scale automated messaging, using "bot" accounts to spread false stories and promote news articles about emails from Democratic operatives that had been obtained by Russian hackers.

The new news here is that, in tracking Russia-linked Twitter accounts, "human users and suspected bots alike," the Alliance has found that they're still at it. For instance, some of those accounts were promoting fake news stories "critical of Hillary Clinton, falsely accusing her of funding left-wing antifa (short for anti-fascist) protesters" and sharing pro-Trump opinions as recently as last week—and also sharing divisive opinions about the ongoing Trump-stoked #takeaknee controversy this week.

This latest study comes in the wake of a Sept. 17 Times report headlined "The Fake Americans Russia Created to Influence the Election." As Scott Shane reported,

On Twitter, as on Facebook, Russian fingerprints are on hundreds or thousands of fake accounts that regularly posted anti-Clinton messages. Many were automated Twitter accounts, called bots, that sometimes fired off identical messages seconds apart ... On Election Day, for instance, they found that one group of Twitter bots sent out the hashtag #WarAgainstDemocrats more than 1,700 times.

What does Twitter have to say about the latest Times report?

About what you'd expect: not much. "Twitter deeply respects the integrity of the election process, a cornerstone of all democracies, and will continue to strengthen our platform against bots and other forms of manipulation that violate our Terms of Service," Twitter told the Times in a written statement.

What happens next?

Chances are Trump will dismiss this news—as he did with reports of Facebook's unwitting use as propaganda tool by the Russians (see: "Facebook's Russian Ads Scandal? Trump Says It's a 'Hoax'").

Members of Congress, though, are likely to be more ... inquisitive. As the Times notes, Twitter representatives (TBD) are set to meet privately with House and Senate committees today. Also, Twitter executives—along with execs from Facebook and Google—have been asked to testify publicly at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Nov. 1.

Read the full New York Times story here.

UPDATE: "Twitter's Testimony on Russian-Linked Accounts 'Inadequate on Every Level'" (Bloomberg News via Ad Age)

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