As the U.S. Congress continues to investigate Russian efforts to meddle in last year’s presidential election in favour of Donald Trump, it has released a list of 2,752 now-deactivated accounts that Twitter identified as being tied to Russia’s “Internet Research Agency” troll farm. According to Facebook, adverts that were paid by the Russian government reached nearly 40 per cent of the American population during the election campaign. For me as a European this prompts several questions. How many trolls and bots influenced the Brexit Referendum and how many adverts, fake pages and profiles, paid by Russia, interfered in European politics in general? And when will we have a similar investigation about the influence of Twitter and Co. on European politics and elections?
Only the tip of the iceberg
The recently published list, distributed as a 65-page PDF file, contains a hodgepodge of Twitter handles and their corresponding account ID numbers. Many are spammy-looking Western names, such as @_TraceyJohnson_ or @CarolineReeeed or @justin_mc_call, or Russian-seeming names, including @BogdanKravcov and @VladEvlanin. Others are designed to look like local U.S. news agencies, including @DailyNewsDenver and @DallasTopNews. Nineteen include “news” in their handle.
The American fact checkers, Politifact, are expanding their list by more than 210 fake news websites every day.
Why is this kind of propaganda so difficult to spot?
A very good example of how this type of propaganda works is the now deleted, popular far-right Twitter account of Jenna Abrams. This account gradually grew a large following on the social media platform over a number of years.
This included news outlets like Bustle, US News and World Report, USA Today, several local Fox affiliates, BET, Yahoo Sports, Sky News, IJR, Breitbart, The Washington Post, Mashable, the New York Daily News, Quartz, the Dallas News, France24, the Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, The Telegraph, CNN, the BBC, Gizmodo, The Daily Dot, The Observer, Business Insider, The National Post, Refinery29, The Times of India, BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail and The New York Times, as well as conspiracy site InfoWars and the Moscow-backed Russia Today and Sputnik.
In an article written by The Independent in February about Twitter criticism of White House advisor, Kellyanne Conway, kneeling on a sofa in the Oval Office without shoes on, the account was quoted as a Trump supporter accusing others of hypocrisy. Even Abrams’ poorly spelt and argued tweet claiming the US Civil War was about money rather than slavery seems to have been calculated to ensure maximum attention in the West. The account even got the attention of respected Russia experts such as former US ambassador Michael McFaul, who got into a number of Twitter spats.
But this is not the first time a political Twitter account in the West has been accused of being a sophisticated Russian fake.
In August, analysts concluded that a pro-Brexit account called “David Jones”, claiming to be from “Southampton/Isle of Wight”, was a Russian fake after they had noticed it only seemed to post tweets between the hours of 8am and 8pm Moscow time (5am to 5pm in the UK) and of its 137,000 tweets sent over four years, the majority were pro-Russia. The account expressed support for the 2014 annexation of Crimea and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on rebels in Syria.
Pretending to be a ‘normal’ citizen exercising free speech and being very ‘concerned’ about democracy and ‘western’ values, while posting funny and entertaining stuff to gain followers and trust, at first makes this kind of Russian influence so successful and difficult to spot or debunk. Only experts will be able to find the real IP address and person or persons behind the account.
What is Europe doing against this kind of ‘social’ media ?
Some European countries like Germany have stepped up by creating new laws and holding Facebook and Co. responsible for removing proven fake content in twenty-four hours.
Twitter announced that Russia Today and Sputnik are banned from advertising.
EU vs. Disinformation and other pages are exposing fake news from Russia today and Sputnik, while Facebook said it will work closely together with external fact-checkers and remove fake sites and content much faster in the future. But is this enough?
This will not help with sophisticated and well planned fakes like ‘Jenna Abrams’.
How much damage have they caused in Europe already?
I am calling for an investigation on the European level and for more efforts of the European Union to be as creative and proactive as the Russians obviously are. Because if Europe is lazy on this subject, it will become impossible to determine who is real and who is fake.