Russia’s social-media trolling operation began stepping up its Twitter presence to new heights in late July 2017 — more than eight months after sowing discord and disinformation in the 2016 presidential election.
The burst of activity —revealed in a new, comprehensive dataset of nearly 3 million tweets—had an overriding focus over the ensuing three months: popularising headlines and news stories that were originally authored by a US-based news site called Truthfeed that supports President Donald Trump and specialises in hyper-partisan, factually incorrect stories.
By October 22, 2017, just hours before Twitter closed nearly all of the known accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency’s troll farm in St. Petersburg, Russia, Truthfeed content accounted for about 95 percent of the accounts’ English-language activity, the dataset shows. Special counsel Robert Mueller in February indicted the Russian agency and 13 individuals on charges of interfering in the 2016 US election.
“For a period of time, Truthfeed was central to their entire effort,” says Darren Linvill, an associate professor of communication at Clemson University. Linvill and Patrick Warren, an associate professor of economics at Clemson, released the dataset of the troll farm’s activity on July 31 in partnership with the news site FiveThirtyEight.
There’s no evidence that Truthfeed’s staff members were aware of the Russian tweeting. Each tweet pointed to a separate, now-defunct website that was republishing more than 50 Truthfeed stories a day. That site, called ReportSecret.com, appears to have been connected to the troll-farm operation.
Truthfeed publishes a syndication feed, which lets other sites gather and republish its stories, but the website’s terms of service say that its content is “the exclusive property of Truthfeed and its licensors.” It’s unclear whether ReportSecret.com was authorised to republish Truthfeed content. The US site, and one of its primary writers, Amy Moreno, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.
Archived versions of the ReportSecret site listed its Twitter handle as @SecretReportt, which is one of the 2,752 accounts associated with the Russian trolling operation that Twitter provided last year
to congressional investigators. Messages sent by Bloomberg News to still-active Facebook and LinkedIn accounts that were also listed on ReportSecret’s website received no
It’s not clear why the tweeting increased after July 2017 or why the Russian troll farm gravitated towards Truthfeed’s content, amid a sea of other dubious websites that label untrue information as news. Clemson’s Linvill, who has spent months studying the troll farm’s tweets, says he believes it signalled a change in strategy for the Russians. For much of 2014 and 2015, he says, the trolling operation spent a lot of time developing its own content. The operation even had an art department to churn out images, memes and new websites, which would have been costly and time-consuming, he says.
“They were putting a lot of effort into something they didn’t have to, because Americans were already doing it ourselves,” Linvill says. “We have plenty of divisive content and plenty of content that is dubious in its basis in fact. We have a lot of sites out there doing this, especially Truthfeed.”