Twitter will email 677,775 users who engaged with Russian election trolls

Did you ever engage on Twitter with Jenna Abrams, the divisive alt-right blogger also known as the fabrication of a Russian troll farm? No? Perhaps then one of her 2,752 troll buddies?

Not sure if you got an earful from Russian trolls? Say, from accounts that sound like local news agencies, such as @DailyNewsDenver or @DallasTopNews, or from one of the seven accounts with the name “Trump” in it? How about @NewYorkDem?

Don’t sweat it if you can’t remember. Twitter’s going to give you a heads-up if you did engage with those and other accounts associated with Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

Twitter announced on Friday that it’s emailing notifications to 677,775 users in the US: that’s how many people it says followed one of the accounts created by the Russian government-linked propaganda factory known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA).

The number includes those of us who retweeted or liked a tweet from the accounts during the election period. The accounts have already been suspended, Twitter said, meaning that the relevant content is no longer publicly available on the platform.

In October, top officials from Facebook, Google, and Twitter told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Russian state actors had carried out a disinformation campaign on their platforms. Twitter at the time released a 65-page list of 2,752 now-deactivated accounts that it identified as being tied to Russia’s troll farm.

As part of an ongoing review, Twitter has identified an additional 1,062 accounts associated with the IRA. The new results don’t change Twitter’s earlier conclusion, though – that content coming from automated Russia-based accounts represented “a very small fraction of the overall activity” on Twitter in the ten-week period preceding the 2016 election.

The recently discovered 1,062 IRA accounts have been suspended for Terms of Service violations, primarily spam. All but a few that were restored to legitimate users remain suspended.

At the behest of congressional investigators, Twitter is sharing the account names with Congress, it said. Twitter mentioned sharing the account handles, but didn’t mention the content of the tweets in question, which might mean that it doesn’t intend to share the content of the banned accounts with Congress.

The tally is now up to 3,814 identified IRA-linked accounts that posted 175,993 tweets, approximately 8.4% of which were election-related, during that pre-election 10-week period.

How much of an impact did those 175,993 tweets make? It’s tough to say. As Ars Technica points out, the messages range from idle banter to content intended to be divisive. Although the tweets are no longer public, Twitter published a variety in its post on Friday.

Besides accounts associated with the IRA, Twitter has also found what is believed to be automated, election-related activity originating out of Russia during the election period. It’s identified 13,512 additional accounts, for a total of 50,258 automated accounts identified as Russian-linked and tweeting election-related content during the election period, representing approximately two one-hundredths of a percent (0.016%) of the total accounts on Twitter at the time. Twitter didn’t say whether there would be email notifications sent to those who’ve engaged with these additional accounts.

Twitter’s post outlines the ways that it’s trying to get better at detecting and blocking suspicious accounts. It’s currently detecting and blocking approximately 523,000 suspicious logins daily for being automatically generated.

Last month, its systems identified and challenged more than 6.4 million suspicious accounts globally per week – a 60% increase over rates from October 2017. Twitter says it’s also developed new techniques for identifying malicious automation (such as near-instantaneous replies to tweets, non-random tweet timing, and coordinated engagement). It’s also improved the phone verification process and introduced new challenges, including reCAPTCHAs, to validate that a human is in control of an account.

Twitter says these are its plans for 2018:

  • Investing further in machine-learning capabilities that help detect and mitigate the effect on users of fake, coordinated, and automated account activity.
  • Limiting the ability of users to perform coordinated actions across multiple accounts in Tweetdeck and via the Twitter API.
  • Continuing the expansion of its new developer onboarding process to better manage the use cases for developers building on Twitter’s API. This, Twitter says, will help improve how it enforces policies on restricted uses of developer products, including rules on the appropriate use of bots and automation.

It’s also planning these steps specifically to prepare for the upcoming 2018 mid-term elections:

  • Verify major party candidates for all statewide and federal elective offices, and major national party accounts, as a hedge against impersonation.
  • Maintain open lines of communication to federal and state election officials to quickly escalate issues that arise.
  • Address escalations of account issues with respect to violations of Twitter rules or applicable laws.
  • Continually improve and apply anti-spam technology to address networks of malicious automation targeting election-related matters.
  • Monitor trends and spikes in conversations relating to the 2018 elections for potential manipulation activity.

Twitter is likely to be in make-it-up-to-Congress mode at this point. Last Wednesday, it was supposed to give evidence on the steps it’s taking to combat the spread of extremist propaganda over the internet, in a Congressional hearing titled “Terrorism and Social Media: Is Big Tech Doing Enough?”.

Facebook, Google and Twitter were required to do a bit of homework as preparation: they were supposed to present responses to a series of detailed written questions from the committee. Facebook and Google did so, but Twitter’s reply was nowhere to be found, days after the deadline.

Well, that’s a letdown, said Senator Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Committee, who was quoted by new media site Axios:

Facebook and Google met the deadline, and [with] voluminous amounts of information, Twitter did not. I’m disappointed in Twitter.