Rus­sia Twit­ter trolls de­flected Trump bad news

The Mercury News Weekend - - NEWS - By RyanNakashima and Bar­bara Or­tu­tay

SANFRANCISCO » Dis­guised Rus­sian agents on Twit­ter rushed to de­flect scan­dalous news about Don­ald Trump just be­fore last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion while strain­ing to re­fo­cus crit­i­cism on the main­stream me­dia and Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis of since- deleted ac­counts.

Tweets by Rus­sia-backed ac­counts such as “Amer­i­ca1st” and “Ba­tonRougeVoice” on Oct. 7, 2016, ac­tively piv­oted away from news of an au­dio record­ing in which Trump made crude com­ments about grop­ing women, and in­stead touted dam­ag­ing emails hacked from Clin­ton’s cam­paign chair­man John Podesta.

Since early this year, the ex­tent of Rus­sian in­tru­sion to help Trump and hurt Clin­ton in the elec­tion has been the sub­ject of both con­gres­sional scru­tiny and a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion by spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller. In par­tic­u­lar, those in­ves­ti­ga­tions are look­ing into the pos­si­bil­ity of col­lu­sion be­tween the Trump cam­paign and the Rus­sians.

AP’s anal­y­sis il­lu­mi­nates the ob­vi­ous strat­egy be­hind the Rus­sian cy­ber med­dling: swiftly re­act, dis­tort and dis­tract at­ten­tion from any neg­a­tive Trump news.

The AP ex­am­ined 36,210 tweets from Aug. 31, 2015, to Nov. 10, 2016, posted by 382 of the Rus­sian ac­counts that Twit­ter shared with con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors last week. Twit­ter de­ac­ti­vated the ac­counts, delet­ing the tweets and mak­ing them in ac­ces­si­ble on the in­ter­net. But a lim­ited se­lec­tion of the ac­counts’ Twit­ter ac­tiv­ity was re­trieved by match­ing ac­count han­dles against an archive ob­tained by AP.

“MSM (the main­stream me­dia) is at it again with Billy Bush record­ing ... What about telling Amer­i­cans how Hil­lary de­fended a rapist and later laughed at his vic­tim?” tweeted the Amer­i­ca1st— ac­count, which had 25,045 fol­low­ers at its peak, ac­cord­ing tometa­data in the archive. The tweet went out the af­ter­noon of Oct. 7, just hours af­ter TheWash­ing­ton Post broke the story about Trump’s com­ments to Bush, then host of “Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood,” about kiss­ing, grop­ing and try­ing to have sex with women, say­ing, “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”

Within an hour of the Post’s story, Wik­iLeaks un­leashed its own bomb­shell about hacked email from Podesta’s ac­count, a re­lease the Rus­sian ac­counts had been fore­shad­ow­ing for days.

“Wik­iLeaks’ As­sange sig­nals re­lease of doc­u­ments be­fore U. S. elec­tion,” tweeted both “Spe­cialAf­fair” and “ScreamyMon­key” within a sec­on­dof each other on Oct. 4. “Spe­cialAf­fair,” an ac­count de­scrib­ing it­self as a “Po­lit­i­cal junkie in ac­tion,” had 11,255 fol­low­ers at the time. “ScreamyMon­key,” self-de­scribed as a “First fron­tier.News ag­gre­ga­tor,” had 13,224. Both ac­counts were cre­ated within three days of each other in late De­cem­ber 2014.

Twit­ter handed over the han­dles of 2,752 ac­counts it iden­ti­fied as com­ing from Rus­sia’s In­ter­net Re­search Agency to con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors ahead of the so­cial me­dia giant’s Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 ap­pear­ances on Capi­tol Hill. It said 9 per­cent of the tweets were elec­tion-re­lated but didn’t make the tweets them- selves pub­lic.

That makes the archive the AP ob­tained the most com­pre­hen­sive his­tor­i­cal pic­ture so far of Rus­sian ac­tiv­ity on Twit­ter in the cru­cial run-up to the Nov. 8, 2016, vote. Twit­ter pol­icy re­quires de­vel­op­er­swho archive its ma­te­rial to delete tweets from sus­pended ac­counts as soon as rea­son­ably pos­si­ble, un­less do­ing so would vi­o­late the law or Twit­ter grants anex­cep­tion. It’s pos­si­ble the ex­is­tence of the deleted tweets in the archive ob­tained by the AP runs afoul of those rules.

The Rus­sian ac­counts didn’t just spring into ac­tion at the last minute. They were sim­i­larly ac­tive at ear­lier points in the cam­paign.

When Trump re­versed him­self on a lie about Barack Obama’s birth­place on Sept. 17, declar­ing abruptly that Obama “was born in the United States, pe­riod,” sev­eral Rus­sian ac­counts chimed in to echo Trump’s sub­se­quent false claim that it was Clin­ton who had started the birther con­tro­versy.

Oth­ers con­tin­ued to push birther nar­ra­tives. The Rus­sian ac­count TENGOP, which many mis­took for the of­fi­cial ac­count of the Ten­nessee Repub­li­can Party, linked to a video that claimed that Obama “ad­mits he was born in Kenya.” But the Rus­sian ac­counts weren’t in lock­step. The han­dle “hy­d­drox” retweeted a post by the anti-Trump bil­lion­aire Mark Cuban that the “MSM (main­stream me­dia) is be­ing suck­ered into chas­ing birther sto­ries.”

Racial dis­cord also fig­ured promi­nently in the tweets, just as it did with many of the ads Rus­sian trolls had pur­chased on Face­book in the months lead­ing up to and fol­low­ing the elec­tion.

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