What Twitter's massive new data dump reveals about Russian trolls

Last year, Michelle Obama made a ...

Posted: Oct 21, 2018 10:37 AM
Updated: Oct 21, 2018 10:37 AM

Last year, Michelle Obama made a surprise appearance by video at the BET Awards, where Chance The Rapper was being honored for his charity work in Chicago.

Social media, naturally, went wild.

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Among those catching the Twitter wave was @Crystal1Johnson, whose bio said she was from Richmond, Virginia, and who described the "responsibility to promote the positive things that happen in our communities."

Crystal's tweet praising the former first lady's Ivy League education was shared more than 120,000 times and liked by 325,000 users, according to a CNN analysis of data released by Twitter. In fact the post, the day after the awards show, went viral more than any tweet she and her colleagues ever posted.

Her colleagues at Russian intelligence, that is.

"Crystal1Johnson," since suspended form the social media platform, was a fake Russian account run by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), according to Twitter.

It's one of thousands released this week by Twitter as part of a huge 9-million-tweet collection of the Russian group's activities -- the most comprehensive accounting to date of the so-called IRA's efforts to use fake social media posts to inflame American society and influence its elections.

There's evidence Russian meddling has continued into the 2018 election; federal prosecutors charged 44-year-old Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, of St. Petersburg, Russia, with conspiracy to defraud the United States for her work with the Internet Research Agency.

Prosecutors alleged in a complaint unsealed Friday she aided the Russian effort to "inflame passions" online related to immigration, gun control and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women's March and the NFL National Anthem debate from December 2016 until May 2018.

Although not directly related, the allegations against Khusyaynova track with the data released by Twitter that sheds fresh light on just how pervasive -- and ongoing -- that Russian interference effort has been.

It also lays bare just how sophisticated the Russian operation became in presenting content that by appearance did not appear pernicious in nature -- and in fact promoted seemingly positive messages in many instances, to gain larger followings.

The Crystal1Johnson account was the most retweeted of any IRA fake identity in the newly released records -- her posts were shared a total of nearly 4 million times, according to CNN's analysis. Her account remained active throughout the 2016 election cycle and into 2017.

While the account spread positive stories about African-American parents and a woman who helped desegregate New Orleans' schools, it also at times took a more pointed tone about the treatment of minorities. In 2016, the account highlighted a case where "police brutally assault and arrest teacher, for no reason," and last year one tweet stated, "Anybody ever think this is why black people would throw the fist up."

The Russians loved a late-night comedy show

The new records also show the seeming absurdity of who was most likely to get shout-outs by the Russian accounts.

One of the most frequent Twitter handles mentioned in the entire 9-million-tweet collection is actually @midnight -- the rather obscure late-night game show that aired on Comedy Central during the week -- according to CNN's analysis.

The Russian trolls just loved @midnight: they shared clips from the show, live-tweeted jokes, retweeted arcane hashtags related to it and tagged the show's handle in all kinds of posts. It may not be immediately clear how "I Dream of Barbie #MakeTVShowsAustralian" or "Whiskers, Texas Ranger #CatTV @midnight" served the Russian cause.

But there may be one clue: midnight east coast time, when the show airs, is 7 a.m. in St. Petersburg, when many Russian officers behind the IRA might be starting their days.

Pre-election tweetstorms

A close examination of the fake tweets from the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign reveals new details about the Russian-backed accounts posting blatantly political messages that could influence covers, but also how many of the accounts were more subtle: posing as news outlets and tweeting about conventional stories. Seemingly flying under the radar to build a user following and amplify issues it wanted in the bloodstream of American discourse.

One account that claimed to be a newspaper in Chicago tweeted about "Cubs fever" as the city's baseball team progressed in the MLB playoffs. An account supposedly in Phoenix posted about a tractor-trailer accident that was closing traffic. Often the posts included links to real news sites.

Sometimes the underlying political motivations were crystal clear. "Wikileaks is revealing truth about Hillary," said one account as WikiLeaks released a deluge of hacked emails from Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta. Another account said Republican voters "will not accept a Clinton win," amplifying Trump's claims of a rigged race and stoking fears of post-election chaos.

As CNN and others have previously reported, many of the troll accounts posed as activists and highlighted violence against African Americans and other racial tensions in American society.

Some of the accounts latched onto popular hashtags to get viral clicks, and perhaps gain followers. One account, posing as a woman from Pittsburgh, joined in on a popular hashtag about roller derby and suggested "Donald Thump" and "Killary Clinton" as team names.

Dozens of trolls posted hundreds of tweets with the hashtag #BetterAlternativeToDebates during the second presidential debate, perhaps in an attempt to make the meme go viral. One proposed playing "Russian Roulette (As long as Putin doesn't get to supply the gun)." Another account wryly suggested, "watching paint dry." One troll said, "having sex with my ex."

One week before voters went to the polls, one of the Kremlin-backed accounts denied that Russian meddling, saying: "Russia's Putin says Moscow not trying to influence U.S. election."

Strangely enough, at least two of the lesser-followed troll accounts had a positive message for Trump after his win. One of them said, "@realDonaldTrump Congratulations from Russia!"

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