Russia’s 2016 Twitter Propaganda Machine Was Carefully Built And Wildly Successful, Researchers Find

By Patrick Howell O'Neill on at

The Russian disinformation campaign leading up to the 2016 American presidential election was bigger in scope and coordination than reported earlier, according to new analysis from the American cybersecurity company Symantec.

Twitter released a data set of reportedly Russian-controlled disinformation actors totalling 3,900 accounts and 10 million tweets in October 2018. Analysed by Symantec, research shows accounts took on average 177 days from creation to actually tweeting, a number underlining the patience in planning that went into the campaign. The accounts then remained active for an average of 429 days, well into August 2016, when almost all of the accounts stopped tweeting.

The accounts were used to balance both automation as well as avoid any detection and deletion by Twitter, researchers found.

“Most accounts were primarily automated, but they would frequently show signs of manual intervention, such as posting original content or slightly changing the wording of reposted [content], presumably in an attempt to make them appear more authentic and reduce the risk of their deletion,” Symantec’s Gillian Cleary wrote. “Fake news accounts were set up to monitor blog activity and automatically push new blog posts to Twitter. Auxiliary accounts were configured to retweet content pushed out by the main accounts.”

Many of the main accounts pretended to be local news outlets at a time when local news is both cratering in the United States but is also still among the most deeply trusted institutions in the country compared to national news and other sources of information.

Symantec laid out some of the key figures below:

Illustration: Symantec

The research shows how the strategy worked to amplify propaganda: @TEN_GOP, an account pretending to be Tennessee Republicans, was retweeted over 6 million times and almost all of the retweets were outside of the Russian accounts.

Russia’s Internet Research Agency “campaign targeted both ends of the political spectrum in the U.S. and this is reflected in the breakdown of influential accounts,” the research noted. “The top 20 most retweeted English-language accounts were split evenly between conservative and liberal messages.”

The campaign found its targets in various political camps. Research from last year showed how some IRA accounts encouraged black voters to boycott the 2016 election.

“The sheer scale and impact of this propaganda campaign is obviously of deep concern to voters in all countries,” the researchers wrote, “who may fear a repeat of what happened in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election in 2016.”

Featured photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty)