For three weeks, a harsh spotlight has been trained on Facebook over its disclosure that Russians used fake pages and ads, designed to look like the work of American activists, to spread inflammatory messages during and since the presidential campaign.
But there is evidence 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.
Twitter has struggled for years to rein in the fake accounts overrunning its platform. Unlike Facebook, the service does not require its users to provide their real name (or at least a facsimile of one) and allows automated accounts — arguing that they are a useful tool for tasks such as customer service. Beyond those restrictions, there is also an online black market for services that can allow for the creation of large numbers of Twitter bots, which can be controlled by a single person while still being difficult to distinguish from real accounts….
Since last month, researchers at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan initiative of the German Marshall Fund, a public policy research group in Washington, have been publicly tracking 600 Twitter accounts — human users and suspected bots alike — they have linked to Russian influence operations. Those were the accounts pushing the opposing messages on the N.F.L. and the national anthem.
Of 80 news stories promoted last week by those accounts, more than 25 percent “had a primary theme of anti-Americanism,” the researchers found. About 15 percent were critical of Hillary Clinton, falsely accusing her of funding left-wing antifa — short for anti-fascist — protesters, tying her to the lethal terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 and discussing her daughter Chelsea’s use of Twitter. Eleven percent focused on wiretapping in the federal investigation into Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, with most of them treated the news as a vindication for President Trump’s earlier wiretapping claims.